Pittsburgh Public Schools’ 2023 budget has been described as “status quo,” but without concrete long-term solutions to stabilize the operating deficit and amid dependency on one-time federal funding, the district’s future financial health could be vulnerable to unforeseen economic changes.

The district [PPS] introduced a preliminary general fund budget of $675.9 million for 2023. The proposed budget is an increase of 1.5% from the previous year. The district’s revenue projection remains at $666.7 million. 

Pandemic relief funding coupled with reductions to the budgetary reserve and revenue from last year’s tax increase are helping to provide short-term stability and limit the operating deficit to $9.2 million. 

The American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief [ESSER] funds are intended to support COVID-19 response efforts. The district received $11.1 million in ESSER I funds to purchase technical equipment and supplies. It aims to use $50.1 million of ESSER II funds to bolster current investments such as wireless technology infrastructure and summer learning programs. The ESSER funds may be used through Sept. 30, 2024. 

The district faces various challenges from declining enrollment and increased charter school costs to rising expenses associated with health care, salaries and transportation. 

At a public hearing on Monday evening, five community members gave testimony about their concerns. Their comments ranged from the need to invest in students with disabilities and restorative justice programming to a call to divest from security services. 

The district faces a growing operating deficit projected for 2024 and beyond, when the district can no longer count on ESSER funds.

PPS Chief Financial Officer Ronald Joseph said in an interview with PublicSource that the 2023 budget’s main priority is to ensure continuing stability by allocating resources in a way that provides students with the services they need. “We know that there’s going to be a need for a change in the future as evidenced by our structural deficit, but we know we need to be thoughtful around that,” he said.  

According to the district’s proposed budget, about 48% of the expenditures are staff salaries and benefits. Other significant expenses include special education, transportation, debt service and charter school costs. The district must pay tuition based upon a statutory funding formula for each of its students who opt for charter schools. Local sources, such as property taxes and earned income taxes, comprise 58% of the district’s anticipated revenue while 41% is to come from state sources. The district will use 1.3% of its $86.28 million fund balance as revenue.

What does the community want for PPS students?

Angel Gober, executive director of 412 Justice, an organization that focuses on economic, environmental and educational justice issues, said the district should re-evaluate its public safety budget to prevent over-policing. “Invest into school climate and positive school culture practices,” she said. 

The 2023 budget proposes an increase of about $226,500 in security services from the 2022 budget for a total of $7.8 million. 

Community members also recommended that the district allocate more funds for its students with disabilities. They recommended hiring more paraprofessionals, investing in social-emotional learning and supporting extended school year programs. 

“They are invisible in the budget. By failing to include students with disabilities, the district is implying that it doesn’t believe our students are part of a larger community,” said Paulette Foster, the special education organizer at 412 Justice. “We can’t allow any student to fall through the cracks. The students who are invisible in what you say will be invisible in what you do.”

Emily Sawyer, a parent of five children in PPS, said the district needs to have an equitable budgeting process in which funds are allocated based on the concentration of needs.

Graham Mulqueen, deputy director of policy at A+ Schools, has emphasized advocating for an equitable and fair budget that is student-based and looks at their specific needs and resource allocation. “The system that we have now we’re really funding the school buildings, looking at what this school building needs and then going from there, not really taking into account the specific needs of those students,” he said in a panel discussion organized by Black Women for a Better Education on Dec. 1.

In that same panel, school board member Gene Walker suggested parents can get involved by trying to understand their children’s schools better.

“One is you really need to be connected to your schools, understand what’s happening in the buildings, not just with your kids, but just overall,” Walker said. “Talk to your principals and see where there are gaps because the principals at the school really drive what’s happening from a central administration standpoint.” 

In an interview, Joseph told PublicSource that the district’s fiscal future is better than it was in the last few years. 

“We’re in a better place, but we have to be mindful that all it takes is a couple of changes and local economic factors, factors at the state level and factors at the federal level,” he said. “All it takes is reduction of state funding, dramatic reduction in local revenue, a dramatic spike in charter costs. And if those things all happen all at the same time, then we’re not going to be looking so good next year.”

The board will vote on and adopt the budget at the legislative session on Dec. 21. 

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

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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...