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Closing the Books

Pittsburgh Public Schools' 2004 budget decision: not the brouhaha of old

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As the city school board passed their 2004 budget - very quietly, compared to the last two years - two other local officials looked to the district as one possible source of financial relief for the city.

 

With few changes, Superintendent John Thompson's proposed budget passed Dec. 17, 5-3 with one abstention. It was the first major decision by two new school board members -- Patrick Dowd (Highland Park) and Dan Romaniello (Brookline) -- who were installed Dec. 1. The change is predicted to shift the board's voting majority - at least on some issues - from the five-member bloc led by former president Darlene Harris in 2003 and former president Jean Fink in 2002. Dowd unseated Harris in District 2 (Spring Hill, Lawrenceville, Morningside and Highland Park).

 

In voting to approve the budget, Dowd joined incumbents Bill Isler of Squirrel Hill (the board's new president), Mark Brentley (Perry Hilltop), Alex Matthews (Stanton Heights) and Randall Taylor (Point Breeze) - the board's minority bloc until Dec. 1.

 

Jean Fink (Carrick), Theresa Colaizzi (Greenfield) and Skip McCrea (Observatory Hill) voted no, all saying that the $525 million budget was simply too large. (Romaniello abstained, saying he didn't have enough information.) Until they're forced to take up school closings and redistricting, it's a peaceful midnight clear for school-board politics. But it'll take coordination and savvy for the board to avoid being the scapegoat in a newer internecine fight: the city's budget.

 

With the likes of state Sen. Jane Orie (R-McCandless) and Rep. Mike Turzai (R-Bradford Woods) looking out for suburban commuters exclusively, the city has to look somewhere for help or blame. On the same day the school board passed its budget and millage cut, city councilor Sala Udin proposed a "tax swap" -- that the city raise their millage by an amount equal to what the school board had just cut.

 

With much less fanfare, former city councilor and now state Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Highland Park) in November successfully added two amendments to Orie's Senate bill, which would establish a city oversight board and prevent the city from creating new commuter taxes. One amendment established a 90-day deadline for the committee to report, and the other asked the committee to compare city taxes with school taxes.

 

"If you have a taxing policy, [school and city] taxes should not be separate and distinct," Ferlo said last week.

 

Is this an attempt, albeit several steps removed from an effect, to get some new city revenue despite Republican resolve that the city get nothing?

 

"I'm not drawing any conclusions," Ferlo said, "I'm just saying it could be."

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