High schools with fewer students in Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] cost the district more per child, though they’ve seen less funding increases than their larger counterparts in the last three years.
As PPS contends with a difficult budget season, PublicSource explores the balance of resources and its effects on students’ futures.
For instance, Carrick High School, which enrolled 660 students, clocked in during the 2020-21 school year — the last for which full data is available — at $28,909, in budgeted funds per student, while Brashear High School, with about 1,180 students was allocated $27,367.
Schools with fewer students have higher overhead costs, such as staff salaries and building maintenance, resulting in more investments per student. However, a higher investment per student does not necessarily reflect improved student outcomes or more resources in those schools.
As student enrollment in PPS keeps dwindling, the district will have to grapple with some difficult financial choices in the next couple of years.
The district has projected a growing operating deficit when the $100.2 million in federal pandemic relief funding expires next September. The loss of those Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief [ESSER] funds could lead to downsizing of staff or cutting down certain education programming in schools, adversely affecting low-achieving schools in the district.
Currently, PPS has a surplus seating capacity of over 19,000 students in their buildings, more than the number of students in the district. Twenty-seven school buildings in PPS are less than half full. School board candidates have said that any conversations about school closures need to involve the entire community.
In advance of the board’s annual budget discussion, PublicSource analyzed the district’s school-based budgets for the last three years.
Smaller schools are more expensive but have fewer resources
Larger schools are less expensive on a per-pupil basis. Allderdice High School, which has nearly triple the budget of its smaller counterpart Perry High School, received less money per pupil.
Data from the state Department of Education show that Perry enrolled about 365 students in 2020-21, with 80% of its student population being low-income and 31% of students having an Individualized Education Plan [IEP]. At Allderdice, student enrollment was 1,430 and 39% of students were economically disadvantaged and 12% had an IEP.
Department of Education data also show that Perry received about $28,840 per pupil in 2021 — nearly $900 more than the per-pupil funding allocated to Allderdice.
District CFO Ron Joseph said that at smaller schools overhead costs such as mandatory staffing of principals or social workers are distributed over fewer students.
James Fogarty, executive director of advocacy group A+ Schools, said higher budget allocations do not necessarily indicate increased resources or better outcomes for students.
“You’re spreading your resources that are costing more due to inflation, due to the cost of pay raises, etc.,” Fogarty said. “But you’re not actually able to deliver more programming because all these resources are split and kind of bifurcated and divided across a big number of buildings.”
What were the changes in budget allocations in the last three years?
Student enrollment declined significantly across the district in 2021-22 and slightly increased in 2022-23 but failed to reach pre-pandemic levels. PPS continues to see an enrollment decline averaging 2% every year.
Most K-8 schools in PPS saw decreases in budgets mirroring a trend of declining enrollment. Only two elementary schools — Banksville and Westwood — saw enrollment increases from 2020.
Click here to see budget and enrollment changes for PPS K-8 schools.
Of the seven 6-8 schools in PPS, only Arsenal saw an increase in both enrollment and budget allocation. Other middle schools, which saw their enrollments go down, received less money.
High schools and 6-12 schools in PPS saw a reverse trend in which nearly all schools saw declines in student enrollment but increased budget allocations.
However, the rate of increase in budget allocations was not equal for all schools.
Allderdice saw a 19% increase in its overall budget. Perry, Carrick and Brashear saw increases of 2%, 5% and 6% respectively.
How does PPS allocate money to the schools?
Each school within PPS is funded through the district’s nearly $676 million general fund budget.
Individual school budgets are based on student enrollment projections that schools receive in January. If a school has a program that requires extra staffing, such as a magnet or a career and technical education program, then additional money is given after the preliminary allocation. The budgets go into effect in July.
The district’s service delivery model determines the staffing estimates for each school based on the number of students. For instance, high schools can have one assistant principal if they have up to 700 students and two assistant principals if the number of students is between 700-1,100.
Schools can hire additional staff based on their needs but that money is allocated separately and cannot be repurposed.
Staff salaries and benefits take up the majority of the budget allocation of each school. Schools are responsible for budgeting all personnel costs except those provided by the central office such as special education, English language learners staff, food service, custodial, nursing and early childhood staff and literacy and math coaches.
Classroom teachers make up most of the budget allocation in each school. All schools are given a fixed amount per full-time equivalent teacher. Take a look at how much each school spent on classroom teachers in 2022-23.
Even as PPS has seen a gradual decline in student enrollment in high schools, the schools have become more expensive in the last three years. Joseph said adjustments are made every year to accommodate inflation.
“That’s why even though enrollment goes down, the costs of staff go up because of benefits going up, salaries going up, our retirement contribution that we have to make going up,” Joseph said.
Enrollment decline and loss of pandemic relief funds bring concerns
PPS is projected to lose nearly 6,000 students by 2031.
Schools such as Perry are working on family engagement and communication strategies to retain and increase enrollment. Molly O’Malley-Argueta, principal at Perry, said the school projected about 365 students but saw a hundred more on their rolls.
With the end of ESSER funds looming, PPS schools may need to prioritize staffing and programming needs that have been funded through that federal relief program.
Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab, a research center at Georgetown University, said the district needs to restructure to better serve all of its students.
“This upcoming end of the ESSER funds is a crisis that the district cannot waste,” she said.
Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Elizabeth Szeto.
The Fund for Investigative Journalism helped to fund this project.
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward. However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us. Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.
We don't have paywalls — but your support helps us bridge crucial information gaps.
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.