Three Allegheny County nonprofits have poured $355,000 in cash and nearly $72,000 in in-kind services into a campaign urging voters to approve a ballot referendum on Nov. 6 that would raise $18 million in tax revenue for children’s programs.
The “Our kids. Our commitment. Allegheny County Children’s Fund Initiative” translates to a $33.60 annual increase for a typical homeowner, or $25 per each $100,000 in assessed property. The revenue would pay for “early childhood learning, after school programs, and nutritious meals,” according to the campaign website.
It’s hard to argue with efforts to improve the lives of children in the county. But there appears to be a number of questions about how the initiative was organized, how the fund will be administered and whether those who have funded the campaign (which, to date, includes $171,398 spent on ads) stand to benefit from it.
Questions have also been raised about how the initiative would intersect with school districts and social service agencies already providing those services in the county.
“There have been no discussions with the district on how this initiative would work, what eligibility the district would have for these funds and what input the district would have with respect to any educational programs that would be provided to the district,” said Ira Weiss, solicitor for the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
The fund has some clear support. Countywide, 63,499 Allegheny County residents signed a petition to get the referendum on the ballot and a list of 35 organizations stand in support of the initiative. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has been voicing his support, while County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has taken a lukewarm stance — in favor of the idea of a children’s fund but not a tax.
Three prominent organizations have released statements opposing the initiative, and many individuals are participating in vigorous online debates.
Here’s what we could find out to help you make an informed decision.
First, this is what the ballot question will look like:
Campaign finance documents show this is an initiative of three groups. Who are they and how much money have they put into it?
Allies for Children, Pressley Ridge and the Human Services Corporation are the major backers of the children’s fund effort.
“Our kids. Our commitment.” filed its election committee documents in April and an initial round of campaign finance documents in May. The campaign will have to disclose its final list of contributions by Oct. 26. But so far, the documents show the following expenditures:
- Allies for Children put up $45,000 in cash and about $72,000 of in-kind services including printing, communications, consulting, management and legal fees.
- Pressley Ridge put up $150,000.
- Human Services Center Corporation put up $160,000.
Besides the total spent on advertising, the next largest expenditure was $100,000 in May to Vote Goal Organizing in Washington, D.C., for paid field organizing services.
In an email, Abby Mathieu Swalga of Blender Advertising said the firm hired about 80 registered voters in Allegheny County to “augment our robust volunteer force.”
“So we set out to conduct a professional campaign, as we believe our children are worth it,” she wrote. The workers were paid $15 an hour.
Allies for Children is a nonprofit organization dedicated to influencing policy decisions related to education and health. Its executive director, Patrick Dowd, previously served on the Pittsburgh Public Schools board and city council. Allies for Children had annual revenue of nearly $651,000 in 2017.
Pressley Ridge is a nonprofit organization that offers mental health, foster care and residential treatment services for children. It had annual revenue of nearly $75 million in 2016.
The Human Services Center Corporation is a nonprofit organization and general service provider that has among its programs after-school and summer programs for students in the Mon Valley. Its executive director is Dave Coplan. The Human Services Center Corporation had revenue of a little more than $1 million in 2016.
In an emailed statement to PublicSource, Pressley Ridge Executive Director Jesse McLean said the steering committee for the children’s fund initiative “was formed by local community leaders and organizations who care about kids. All ten of the steering committee organizations feel that early learning opportunities, after school programs, and nutritious meals are three areas that will help our kids — and Allegheny County — reach success. No one organization is the leader.”
Pamela Harbin, a community activist with the Education Rights Network, took a skeptical view of the funding sources.
“No one gives that amount of money without something to gain,” she said.
Weiss expressed similar sentiments.”There appears to be a likelihood that many of the advocates for this — both politically by urging adoption and financially — stand to get funds from it,” Weiss said. “So I would view any money they are spending as an investment rather than a donation.”
Voting yes or no to this ballot question will change the Allegheny County home rule charter to collect an additional tax. How far along is the development of a county children’s fund?
At this point, the children’s fund amounts to a well-heeled advertising campaign and successful petition drive. The campaign to create the fund has described it as a pool of taxpayer money that would be used to support programs for children in Allegheny County.
If passed in Allegheny County, the tax hike would begin on Jan. 1, 2019.
The backers have circulated a flow chart that indicates a county office would be created to manage the millions collected annually. County Manager William D. McKain, who has served in the position for six years, would supervise the office. The flow chart says Fitzgerald and county council would appoint an "advisory commission made up of volunteers from our communities" to "provide counsel to the office but not decision making."
It is unclear how many staff members would make up the fund’s county office and how existing children’s programs could access the funds.
Weiss said there are questions among school officials about how the funds would be distributed. “There is some concern as to who will prioritize the needs of the groups and agencies seeking money,” Weiss said. “Will there be equity in distribution to programs in terms of need?”
Those spearheading the children’s fund have put together a proposed amendment to the home rule charter. Asked about specifics asserted in the campaign’s amendment and flow chart, Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs wrote in an email: “Everything is contingent upon the ballot question. While the organization’s draft bill does put this under the County Manager — all 18 departments of the county in the executive branch fall under his purview. That’s what the county manager does. It, however, would be premature and inappropriate for him or anyone else to comment on draft legislation at this time.”
How would the children’s fund affect already established early learning, after school and meal programs?
Pressley Ridge’s McLean emphasized to PublicSource that the specifics about how the county would administer the children’s fund would be left up to the committee appointed to oversee it.
Many nonprofits appear to feel there’s a need for the fund, regardless of how the details iron out or who’s put in charge. The ‘Our kids. Our commitment.’ campaign website identifies at least 35 supporting organizations — including big-name groups such as the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, A+ Schools and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western PA. It also names a steering committee of 10 groups.
A+ Schools sent out an Oct. 16 email urging people to vote for the initiative: “Currently, after school programs are funded by a fluctuating mix of state, federal and foundation dollars, in addition to parent fees. The Children's Fund would secure dedicated funding and county oversight to ensure reliable, quality out-of-school-time care and nutrition for our kids.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools board member Sala Udin said he will vote in favor of the fund though he acknowledged the fund organizers have not communicated with the board.
“The people who are heading it up are very familiar with the school district and the programs that we offer. I don’t think they would run willy-nilly without knowledge of the areas that need to be served,” Udin said.
There are numerous programs offering early learning, after-school activities and nutritious meals to youth in the county. They are offered by the Pittsburgh school district and others in the county, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit [AIU], a regional education agency for suburban school districts, and social service agencies. Funding comes from a variety of sources, including state, federal and local school district money as well as foundation support.
AIU spokesperson Sarah McCluan wrote in a statement to PublicSource: “We appreciate all efforts to support early childhood programs and encourage people to vote in the best interest of their communities.”
What’s the goal of the three organizations who spearheaded this initiative? How did this come about?
McLean explained that local education organizations have been talking for years about ways to secure government funding for specific education-related initiatives, even when politicians push for cuts on the state or federal level.
The children’s fund is envisioned as a way for Allegheny County schools and nonprofits to counteract possible future cuts, he said.
“When those cuts occur, it filters down to the work that we do and we work with a very vulnerable population, so those cuts just dig deeper and impact the work that we do, so that we can’t provide the necessary services,” McLean said. “We can’t turn our backs on these young people.”
Three prominent organizations have spoken out against the children’s fund. Why?
The Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network [PIIN] released a statement, criticizing the effort.
“We believe that if the Allegheny County Children’s Fund Initiative were truly a public process, we’d have access to basic information such as how the fund’s advisory commission would be appointed, or how they would oversee what is estimated to be nearly $18 million in annual revenue. Unfortunately, those questions don’t have answers.”
The initiative’s leaders refute the statement, saying they’ve laid out the process of how the funds would be subject to review. Supporting organizations The Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern Pennsylvania and PUMP sent out email blasts, denouncing the ‘falsehoods’ being spread.
Great Public Schools — a coalition of eight organizations including the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Education Rights Network [ERN] and PIIN — also criticized the children’s fund initiative on seven points. Among them: The children’s fund doesn’t address already existing programs that seek to improve early learning, nutrition and after-school services such as Head Start, Early Head Start, as well as Keystone Stars, the city’s “Early Childhood Education Task Force.”
“I think the focus should be on directing revenue towards successful, already existing programs that are underfunded, not creating a new layer of unnecessary bureaucracy," said Ghadah Makoshi in the Great Public Schools statement. Makoshi is the parent of a child with a disability at Pittsburgh’s Environmental Charter School.
The Great Public Schools statement also criticizes the initiative for being vague. “It is unclear how the $18 million would be distributed,” the statement read. “It could easily be corrupted to pick ‘winners’ among certain types of programs (e.g. private non-profit or charters) over others.”
The ERN opposes the children’s fund over concerns that “historically marginalized children, including black, brown and disabled children” would lose their rights under federal law if money from the fund goes to non-school entities.
“Children whose rights are protected by enforceable state and federal laws lose these protections during after-school and PreK programs unless they are administered by the public school system, a condition that is not guaranteed under this referendum,” the ERN statement said.
What do the groups spearheading the campaign say about allegations of a vague plan?
PublicSource contacted Allies for Children Executive Director Patrick Dowd to answer this question. The children’s fund lists the same address as Allies for Children, and Dowd filed the fund’s campaign committee expense reports. Dowd routed the request through the Pittsburgh-based Blender Advertising Group to McLean, who spoke on behalf of the organizations.
“I don’t think it’s vague,” McLean said. “We’ve been very clear that there’s going to be an advisory committee that will be formed in order to take a look at creating policies, procedures, standards.”
What are public officials saying?
Fitzgerald has said he’s fine with a children’s fund, but not if it involves raising taxes.
“The County Executive is supportive of the idea and concept,” Downs wrote in an email to PublicSource. “He believes investing in early education is an important goal and that having children ready for school — in all ways — makes them better prepared and ready for other opportunities down the road. That being said, he is not in favor of raising the property tax to do so.”
Peduto has spoken favorably about the idea for a children's fund, but has said he'd prefer to test it out in the city and then expand throughout the county if it's successful. But, “Yes, he supports the initiative,” wrote the city spokesman Tim McNulty in an email to PublicSource.
Has anyone else spoken out?
Many people are asking questions and vowing their support or opposition on long threads throughout social media platforms of Facebook, Reddit and NextDoor.
In a Facebook post directed at Dowd, De Neice Welch, a reverend at the Bidwell Street United Presbyterian Church, accused Dowd of deciding “what low income and poor communities need without talking to the residents of those communities.”
The children’s fund initiative has officially held a total of eight events, with another 11 scheduled prior to Election Day. And even where the events have been held has become controversial. The events have mostly taken place in locations within or near the Upper St. Clair, North Hills and North Allegheny school districts — more affluent areas in the county. Events are planned in coming weeks in Wilkinsburg and the North Side and 19th Ward, which includes the city neighborhoods of Brookline, Beechview and Mt. Washington.
McLean stressed that any decisions about how the children’s fund will be allocated will be a transparent process.
“Once you get this money — we’re talking about $18 million — there has to be proper oversight over those monies,” McLean said. “So, we don’t have $18 million right now from this fund. So if it’s approved and we get these monies then these processes and procedures should be developed with the public in mind.”
Update 4:15 p.m.: This story was updated to reflect additional information.
Mary Niederberger covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0064 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matt Stroud is a freelance reporter in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattstroud.
This story was fact-checked by Mary Niederberger.