Thorny budget math problem for new schools chief

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Even the most gifted student would have trouble trying to solve the math problem Gov. Tom Corbett has presented the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

That much was clear tonight as Superintendent Linda Lane outlined the city district's budget woes during a community meeting hosted by A+ Schools. Addressing nearly 100 parents, community members and school officials, Lane explained that the Pittsburgh Public Schools will be forced to make significant staffing and programming cuts to erase a projected $68 million deficit for the district's next fiscal year.

"We are going to look different on the other end," she announced during the meeting at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers headquarters, on the South Side. The district, she added, will have to achieve "Promise readiness [for students] on fewer resources."

Even before Corbett released his budget proposal, which included $1 billion in reductions to basic education, Lane said the district's books were already destined for red ink. "Right now we have a district that's spending more than it's taking in," she said, noting in a PowerPoint slide show that the school system's current operating deficit is $8.7 million. "So we already had a problem -- the governor's budget makes it worse."

As a result of Corbett's budget proposal, the Pittsburgh Public Schools will lose $34.1 million annually. That means a projected $23.9 million 2011 deficit for the district, and an estimated $68 million deficit in 2012.

"I want you to understand how big this problem really is," Lane said. "I want you to understand the magnitude."

In March, the district announced plans to cut the central office budget by 10 percent. But, Lane said, "We know now that just simply isn't enough."

Indeed, district officials are currently trying to figure out exactly what they need to cut to bring expenditures in line with the district's available resources. They are currently considering central office staff cuts as large as 50 percent, which could save $10-15 million annually.

In addition, Lane said school schools closings, course reductions and school-staff reductions could cut an additional $30-40 million. "That is a lot of money," she said.

And the $68 million annual deficit may only be the start. Lane said there's a chance it could grow to roughly twice that much should the state adopt a school-voucher plan, which educators fear would divert resources from public schools to private academies.

On the bright side, Lane said at the end of her presentation, at least Pittsburgh's fiscal problems aren't as bad as Philadelphia's, where the city school district faces a $629 million budget deficit.

"I'm glad I don't have to deal with that," she said.

After Lane finished her presentation, A+ Schools polled attendees on their own budget priorities. Asked which areas they would least like to cut, the audience selected "Instructional Supports in Schools," "Programs in Schools" and "Special Education." Areas where attendees were more amenable to cuts included "Central Office Administration and Business" and "Transportation."

Attendees were also asked if they would support a tax increase to fill the budget gap. The poll of the room showed that 37 percent voted "definitely yes," 16 percent voted "probably yes," 14 percent voted "not sure," 10 percent voted "probably not" and 23 percent voted "definitely no."

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