Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] has increased staffing levels, fueled by federal pandemic relief funds, even as it continues seeing a steady decline in student enrollment. While student enrollment has declined by 17% since 2017, PPS has increased staffing by 3.5%. 

With the end of one-time pandemic-relief funds looming and tighter budgets, education policy experts say the district may need to rethink its expanded labor force.

PPS spends more money per student than many other similarly sized districts and, notably, even one of the region’s most affluent and high-achieving districts. 

Per-pupil spending in the city school district has consistently increased every year. In 2020-21, the district invested about $28,180 per student. In comparison, the Penn Hills School District spent $19,870 per pupil, and the Fox Chapel Area School District spent $24,135.

But the district’s per-pupil infusion is not translating into improved student outcomes and could potentially lead to fiscal challenges in the coming years, with the expiration of the pandemic relief funds in 2024.

“There's a problem brewing in Pittsburgh Public Schools. Some tough financial choices are coming. The sooner they make them, the more there'll be money available to help these kids get back on track,” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab, a research center at Georgetown University. Roza researches state and national education spending trends, and PublicSource briefed her on trends at PPS.

Several factors are contributing to Pittsburgh’s outsized per-pupil spending. Chief among them is that the district has seen a steady 2% drop in student enrollment every year, with little action taken to address the declines, like consolidating buildings or adjusting the size of the workforce.

In fact, the district’s number of employees has grown and the teacher’s union has been largely successful in its contract negotiations — a process it is beginning again at the end of this month.

The result: Relatively high teacher pay along with relatively low student-to-teacher ratios.

There's a problem brewing in Pittsburgh Public Schools. Some tough financial choices are coming. Marguerite Roza

Margaret Rudolph, chief human resources officer at PPS, said staffing is based on state allocations and she is not aware if the district has any solid plan for addressing the gap between increased staffing and declining enrollment. 

She said district departments have added positions when they received grant or project funding. If there is no funding, the district might use different strategies like redeploying personnel into vacant positions or not filling those vacancies.

“When the funding sources go away, often the positions also go away,” she added.

Better pay, lower ratio

According to a report by A+ Schools, at least 136 new staffing positions have been created since 2017. 

The district mirrors a statewide trend. In Pennsylvania, staffing levels have risen by 6% despite a 3% decline in student enrollment in the last 10 years.

The student-teacher ratio at PPS is 11.7:1 compared to the national average of about 16:1. 

Salaries and benefits account for nearly 50% of the total expenditures in the district's budget for 2023, exceeding the previous year's amount by over $3 million. Of the $195 million allocated for salaries, roughly $107 million went to classroom teachers. The district spent $133 million on employee benefits.

An analysis comparing 2021-22 educator pay data by the National Education Association and teacher salaries at PPS in 2022 showed teachers in the district are earning more than state and national averages:

  • In 2022, full-time teachers at PPS earned about $83,375 on average whereas nationally, teachers made $66,745. In Pennsylvania, the average teacher's salary was about $73,070. 
  • New teachers at PPS also made about $6,000 more than the national average. The starting salary for PPS teachers was about $48,340 in 2022. 

Higher teacher salaries at PPS are primarily owed to successful collective bargaining by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers [PFT]. Teachers in Pittsburgh take 12 years to reach the maximum base salary of about $99,000. Come September, some teachers hired after July 2010 will make over $100,000. Teachers in the Mount Lebanon School District — another top district in the region — take 16 years to make the same amount. 

The high teacher salaries within PPS have contributed to low turnover rates among teachers, leading to a relatively stable workforce. Over 60% of teachers have 12 or more years of experience in PPS. 

The current four-year contract between the union and the district is to expire in June next year. PFT President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said the union is aiming for a longer contract of more than five years and plans to negotiate higher salaries for teachers and paraprofessionals. 

Rudolph said the district recently began an equity audit and a strategic plan that will inform negotiations with the union, but it was too early to say if they will see higher salaries or reduced staff.

Advocates: funds could be better targeted

Laura Boyce, the Pennsylvania executive director of Teach Plus, an education nonprofit aimed at training teachers for leadership roles, said higher salaries are advantageous as they allow the district to attract high-quality teacher candidates. But good pay is not the only factor affecting student achievement.

Last year, 19 PPS schools had over 60% of students performing below basic levels in math.

The district has been struggling with poor performance since before the pandemic, when students’ math and reading scores were almost a grade below the national average. In 2022, student performance was nearly two grades below the national average. 

James Fogarty, executive director of the local advocacy group A+ Schools, said structural issues like the concentration of students in poverty and highly segregated schools are affecting student outcomes. 

There's been a lot of initiatives. ...So you get initiative fatigue and folks aren't working together.James Fogarty

Schools such as Westinghouse Academy, Schiller 6-8, Allegheny 6-8 and UPrep 6-12 at Milliones, where a majority of the students are economically disadvantaged, employ teachers with the least amount of experience.

“This isn't unique to Pittsburgh, a system where, based on seniority rules and other collective bargaining agreements, it's often easier for more experienced teachers to select into easier-to-teach school environments or to receive an easier teaching assignment within a school,” said Boyce. 

Boyce said the district could start to address that by experimenting with financial incentives such as differentiated pay or strategic salary supplements to attract and retain experienced and effective teachers in schools with the most challenging environments. Regular teacher-led professional development within school hours could be more effective than contracting outside services for teacher training once a year, she added. 

Rudolph said PPS has a robust teacher induction program where experienced teachers can mentor new teachers. PPS is also considering rehiring retired teachers to leverage their experience and knowledge into helping new and substitute teachers, she added. 

Fogarty said the district also needs to reevaluate its professional development initiatives and provide a curriculum centered on knowledge-building to support educators. 

“There's been a lot of different initiatives. You've had four different superintendents in the last 12 or 13 years. So you get initiative fatigue and folks aren't working together,” he said. 

Loss of relief funds could lead to financial struggles

PPS received over $100 million as part of the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief [ESSER] program, intended to support instruction. The use of the pandemic relief funds also helped provide short-term stability to the district’s operating deficit by bringing it down to $3.2 million at the end of 2022 from $5 million in 2021.

Nearly $22 million of the ESSER III funds have been used to provide salaries and benefits to general staff including classroom teachers, adjuncts and paraprofessionals. The district has projected a growing operating deficit from the end of 2023 onward as the ESSER funds will expire in September 2024. 

Esposito-Visgitis said the district is experiencing shortages in special education teachers, speech therapists and paraprofessionals. 

They will have to tighten their budget. ... It might mean fewer staff going forward.Chad Aldeman

The shortage may be exacerbated if the district cannot afford to retain some of those positions when the pandemic relief funds expire. She said the district should hire fewer consultants and instead pay for teachers and paraprofessionals who know what the students need.

The district organized a recruitment fair earlier this month to hire for these positions. Rudolph said the district will likely fill all vacant positions to ensure they are fully staffed for the next school year. 

In a preliminary budget meeting on June 12, district CFO Ronald Joseph said PPS is starting a strategic planning process and evaluating staff expenses and programming covered by ESSER. If the district prioritizes certain investments and tries to fit them in the budget, then there will be trade-offs in other areas, he added.

Chad Aldeman, an independent contractor and research expert on school finance and teacher labor markets, said because the district chose to increase staffing in the last few years, it will need to reconsider how to reallocate its dollars when the extra funds run out.

“They'll have to tighten their budget and that might mean things like closing schools, it might mean reducing some of the services they offer, whether that's after-school programs or programs within the school day. It might mean fewer staff going forward,” he said. 

Roza said she is concerned if the district decides to lay off teachers, it would start with the least experienced and often more diverse teachers, thus impacting schools with the highest poverty. If the district decides to go on a hiring freeze, schools that have students with higher needs will be impacted adversely as they are most likely to have openings for special education or math positions, she added. 

“I​​t tends to be the case that whenever a district is shrinking its labor, those effects are felt first on our highest poverty schools,” said Roza.

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at lajja@publicsource.org

This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.

The Fund for Investigative Journalism helped to fund this project.

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Lajja is the K-12 Education Reporter at PublicSource. Originally from India, she moved to the States in 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Before...