Nancy Hines, superintendent of the Penn Hills School District, didn’t have a scheduled meeting until lunchtime on Jan. 20, but by 10 a.m., she had already met with a half dozen people.

The common denominator across many of her morning interactions was the previous night’s board meeting. Several senior staff walked into her office to talk about the committee meetings. Their mood was upbeat: Eileen Navish, the business manager for the district, had given the most positive report in years. 

When Hines took over as superintendent in 2015, the district was around $19 million in the hole. But Navish reported that the district now had a positive balance of $7 million, an amount that could increase as the district receives additional COVID relief funds. 

The state auditor general first called out the district for financial mismanagement in 2016. Then, after two additional reports highlighting mismanagement, in 2019, Penn Hills was placed into financial distress by the state Department of Education, giving the state additional oversight.

The district’s property tax rate — above 30 mills —  is now the second highest in the county after six years of tax increases. The district has rebuilt its finances by refinancing bonds, securing grants from the state, selling old school buildings, raising taxes and cutting staff. It then received an additional windfall in the form of COVID relief funds.

Penn Hills has scrapped its way back to solvency and found itself with savings that would’ve taken much longer to accrue if not for the pandemic.

But signs of its financial past are still evident among staff: teachers have missed out on the typical annual raise on their salary schedules. Some furloughed staff have had to change the subjects they teach to find a permanent position within the district. And class sizes have increased — a symptom of the staffing cuts they’ve made to try to balance the budget. And the district will have to raise taxes or make further cuts to balance its budget once its federal relief money is spent.

Hines said she believes the district has finally achieved the kind of stability that will allow it to focus on some perennial problems — changing its approach to discipline and improving its academics, especially at the middle school.

The reasons for the district’s financial problems are clear now but it’s not clear who was really responsible. The previous administration blamed the old board and the board blamed the previous administration. Now Hines said she sends detailed weekly reports to the board and has tried to change that dynamic.

“I’m going to tell them the good, the bad and the ugly and going to have a record that I told them,” she said. “That’s painful at times. That’s how you have to do business.”

Nancy Hines said she was originally hired by Penn Hills to focus on academic improvement but was forced to devote her attention to getting the district's finances in order. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)
Nancy Hines said she was originally hired by Penn Hills to focus on academic improvement but was forced to devote her attention to getting the district's finances in order. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

How they got into this mess

Back in Hines office, she took a moment to review some checks that were being issued in the afternoon before signing off on them. She looked to ensure there were three signatures and flipped through the pages of detailed explanations of what the money was for and who had approved it.

This kind of scrutiny was missing from the district when she arrived, Hines said. She said she realized early on she didn’t know who she could trust from the old administration. She would have to scrutinize every aspect of the district’s operations. 

Hines didn’t realize what she signed up for when she took an assistant superintendent job in 2014. She had previously worked in the district as a teacher and later as a principal before departing for jobs elsewhere. She thought the focus of her return would be improving the district’s academics. She took over in 2015 after the previous superintendent resigned and learned in her second month that the district had about $10 million less than had been reported.

She had to make an unusual plea to a judge to take out an expensive loan without collateral because otherwise Hines didn’t know how the district would meet its payroll. The judge scolded her for being so irresponsible, even though she’d only recently taken over. A year later, she found herself standing next to the state auditor general at a press conference as the district was excoriated for financial mismanagement and serious ethical lapses. 

“I just wanted to hang my head. It was just so shameful,” she told PublicSource. 

Lisa O’Connor waits for more first graders to show up on the video screen for her next lesson. Gisselle Perez Montoya works on a phonics lesson, while half of the class works on the same lesson from home. (Photos by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

Soon after, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office convened a grand jury and, in 2019, issued two scathing reports about the district’s financial practices and conflicts of interest. 

The reports revealed ethical problems, such as staff using district credit cards for personal items and board members getting jobs through connections to firms that the district hired. Many of those staff are no longer with the district, and the previous board members are all gone except the current board president, Erin Vecchio.

And then there was the big structural problem: The district had borrowed money to build two large new school buildings without properly accounting for where the money would come from. And then the board let the costs of construction balloon. 

The consolidated elementary school was unpopular with just about everyone except the board who voted for it in 2011. Many parents and staff preferred the smaller, neighborhood elementary schools. The oversized new high school that opened in 2012 didn’t draw back students from charter schools like the district had hoped. The district had been losing students without cutting back on staff for years, raising taxes or cutting other expenses, leaving it with multimillion-dollar budget deficits. And just as Hines took over, the district was facing large debt payments to pay for these elaborate buildings.

The mega-elementary school

The pandemic has eased the immediacy of the district’s financial challenges. But Daniel Matsook, the district’s financial recovery officer, said the COVID relief money is papering over the fact that the district’s regular income still doesn’t cover its regular expenses. It will be up to the board, over the next few years, he said, to pass budgets that finally put the district on a path to long-term solvency.

Hines has had to walk a fine line of dealing frankly about the district’s problems, she said, but also not highlighting them so much that it loses more students to charter schools. 

Although the pandemic helped speed up the recovery financially, it also took a lot of attention away from basic academic improvements, the job Hines originally returned to the district to do in 2014. 

“Now my focus is to get back to the academics,” she said.

Cathy Ekis reads a book about penguins and kindness to her kindergarten class. Ekis’ pre-K classes were cut four years ago when the district ran into financial trouble. COVID protocols meant the children are spaced farther apart and sometimes Ekis uses a microphone so the whole class can hear her. The teachers told the district young kindergarteners need iPads, not laptops. But the large class size and lack of an aide means Ekis has to do things like untangle headphone wires while her students wait. (Photos by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

Kristin Brown, the principal of Penn Hills Elementary School, said that over the years, she has tried to block out the background noise caused by the district’s financial turmoil. She has been with the district since 1992 and previously served as the principal of one of its neighborhood elementary schools. 

When the consolidated elementary school opened in 2014, she had her work cut out for her, building a sense of community among more than 1,300 students.

“Everyone loved their neighborhood schools, so it wasn’t wildly, excitedly received to be coming into this new building,” she said. “So there were a lot of naysayers and challenges to coming here.”

“Everyone loved their neighborhood schools, so it wasn’t wildly, excitedly received to be coming into this new building," said Kristin Brown, principal of Penn Hills Elementary School. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

By one measure, she’s had some success. The elementary school students showed growth in math, reading and science scores on their state exams between 2015 and 2019 even as the district lost staff. The middle and high school test results were more mixed.

A new approach to behavior

Mental health challenges during the pandemic have exacerbated behavioral issues across the country. One counselor stopped Hines early in the fall semester and said, “These kids have to relearn school.”

Hines has been slowly rolling out a new approach to discipline, replacing security guards with counseling staff and trying to drive the number of suspensions down.

This year, the elementary school added a team of counselors trained in restorative practices. They have a special room where kids go to practice how they can avoid problems in the future.  “We may not see a change today, next month, next year even,” said behavior management specialist Ruston Brown, who works with the counseling team. “But we know if we continue this, we know the changes will be made.”

Penn Hills suffered more from violence in 2021 than most districts its size: three students were murdered in shootings, another died of an overdose and another died of an accidental shooting. Although the violence occured off campus, a shooting in the fall required the district to play a football game without fans.

Hines said she believes the district needs to figure out what’s driving student behaviors. “It’s time-consuming,” she said. “There are people who feel you are being too soft, you need to set an example and publicly shame kids and that will be a deterrent. And the research says that’s definitely not the case.”

Stephanie Cucunato took over teaching a room dedicated to helping K-2nd grade students with autism after her previous job as a reading specialist was eliminated by the district during the district's financial problems. Cameron Mackey finished working on a word building puzzle while the other students started their choice activity time. (Photo by Oliver Morison / PublicSource)

Not everyone is fully onboard. Jackie Blakey-Tate, the school board’s vice president and a former principal in Pittsburgh Public Schools, used to work with students with behavioral challenges. “You can’t just smack a kid on the wrist and say don’t do that again,” she said. “You have to have consequences, especially for things putting others in danger. So, for me, the jury is still out.”

At 12:30 p.m. Jan. 20, Hines finally had her first scheduled meeting of the day: a Zoom with a group of local ministers who are hoping to work with the district to create “safe spaces” for students to go after school. It would be funded by a county health department grant. Although details of the program are still being developed, Hines said the plan would provide a space for students to complete homework, get a snack or meal and eventually offer additional enrichment off campus.  

“When kids feel alone, they’re scared,” Hines said. “That’s when things happen.”

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s K-12 education reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

This story was fact-checked by Dalia Maeroff.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...