The Pittsburgh Public Schools board voted Wednesday to increase property taxes by 3%, which will bring in an estimated $5.3 million next year in additional revenue.

The tax increase will cost residents $30 on every $100,000 of assessed value on their property.

The district is currently facing a $56 million budget deficit, and the only major options for closing the gap that have recently been discussed by the board are raising taxes, laying off staff and closing schools. 

The majority of the budget deficit comes from a combination of shrinking enrollment and increased spending during former Superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s administration, including payroll for more than 150 additional staff. The district is also spending more on teacher pension costs and increased charter school enrollment, trends that predate Hamlet’s tenure.

“We basically have a year to stabilize, then we have to start the first wave of major cuts.”

Ronald Joseph, the district’s chief financial officer, said at the Dec. 8 budget meeting that he had drawn up some “really doomsday nuclear option items” where whole programs and whole departments might have to be cut in future budgets to close the district’s large deficit.

The district is spending COVID relief money to cover part of its current deficit but has said it won’t be able to pass a balanced budget in 2023 without more revenue or decreased spending. The district plans to hold meetings in the coming year to try to make “thoughtful” changes rather than rushing them through, Joseph said.

“We basically have a year to stabilize, then we have to start the first wave of major cuts,” said Joseph at the Dec. 8 budget meeting.

Ronald Joseph, the district’s chief financial officer, explained the budget options at the Dec. 22, 2021 board meeting. (Screenshot)

The tax narrowly passed, with five members voting in favor and four members voting against. The five members who voted in favor of the new tax plan were all endorsed by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Board member Bill Gallagher was the only board member endorsed by the teacher’s union who voted against the plan.

Board member Pam Harbin gave a lengthy speech in favor of the vote, saying that the tax increase represented the equivalent of 37 teachers or 85 paraprofessionals and that there were no other realistic options for raising revenue this year. “I know it may seem counterintuitive at a time where there are places where things could be cut and we could do things differently,” she said. “But this is the option for now, we don’t have any other options on the table.”

Gallagher was joined in his no vote by three board members who were supported by the Black Women for a Better Education [BWFBE] Political Action Committee, which supported candidates who wanted to remove Hamlet. None of the board members who voted no spoke at the meeting but at previous meetings those board members said the district needed to show a willingness to cut spending before burdening taxpayers with additional costs. 

The additional tax revenue will cover about a third of the total increase in spending included in this year’s budget. The district’s $690 million budget is a 2.8% increase. The new budget, combined with $219 million in supplemental spending, increases total spending in the district above $900 million for the first time. 

“This is the option for now, we don’t have any other options on the table.”

Board member Jamie Piotrowski, who had expressed concerns about raising taxes at previous board meetings, was the only other board member to speak about the tax increase at the meeting, and said the board’s vote still required the board to look at additional options later, including potential school closures.

The tax increase is the first by the district since 2019 and the second since 2014. Pittsburgh residents pay the second lowest property tax rate in Allegheny County and the highest income tax rate, and each of those tax sources make up roughly a third of the outside revenue in the district’s budget. The other third comes from the state.

The district has lost nearly 3,000 students over the past five years, with enrollment declines in more than 90% of its schools

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

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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...