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City Council weighs in on school closures

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Pittsburgh City Council is urging Pittsburgh Public Schools to impose a moratorium on school closings. But district officials have a blunt response: If you want us to keep schools open, give us our money.

In 2006, the state shifted .25 percent of the existing 3 percent wage tax from the district to the city's coffers, part of a larger reorganization of the city's tax structure after the city entered into Act 47 oversight to avoid bankruptcy.

"In the last six years alone, this district lost $65 million ... funneled over to the city to help you, City Council. It saved you from your financial issues," school board member Theresa Colaizzi told council at an Oct. 14 hearing on school closures. "At the same time, it damaged the school district."

Council argues that closed school buildings become the city's burden. For instance, the former Morningside Elementary building was vacant for six years before it was purchased this August by the Urban Redevelopment Authority to turn into apartments.

"Even with our success stories about these closed schools, there's been a considerable amount of public and city money that's gone to that," District 4 Councilor Natalia Rudiak said at the Oct. 14 hearing. "[The] wage tax is being diverted to the city but then we're transferring that to the [URA] so we can thereby take care of our closed schools."

"There is no plan under the current five-year plan to lower [the city's share of] the wage tax, and no options present to account for the lost revenue," says Councilor Bill Peduto, the city's presumptive mayor-elect. "If we should stay under Act 47 oversight, a new five-year plan would be created next year. It is possible to consider options such as this during those discussions." 

Now the school district faces a similar crisis as it struggles to stave off a $46.3 million deficit projected for 2016, and is looking to school closures as a possible solution. According to 2011 analysis from the Pew Research Center, the district saved $14.7 million by closing 22 schools in 2006.

"If, in fact, the issue is we want to keep schools open, give us some of that money back," says school-board member Sherry Hazuda.

In total, nearly 30 schools have been closed over the past decade.

"Without significant changes in either revenue or expenditure, we're out of money by 2016," says PPS Superintendent Linda Lane. "Anyone can see that over the last several years, we've been spending off our savings account, and ultimately that comes to an end in 2016. I know these are tough decisions. However, I have a fiduciary responsibility to the district to point out the problem and try to find the solution."

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