The future of the Sto-Rox School District lies in the hands of students like Tristin Dean and Pernell Benning. 

Dean attended the district for seven years but three years ago left to attend 7th grade at Propel Montour. Her mom thought Sto-Rox was too violent. A student was shot in the arm in 2016 and, in 2018, an 18-year-old graduate was shot and killed.

Benning, an eighth grader at Propel Montour, left the district two years ago because his mom was concerned about fighting at Sto-Rox. In the 2019-20 school year, there was a fight in the district’s schools more than once every two days. Propel, which has about two-thirds as many students, reported fewer than one fight every two months.

Sto-Rox has been running budget deficits for so many years that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania finally stepped in last year to put the district back on sound financial footing. On Thursday, the school board passed a sweeping 80-page plan with dozens of changes to make over the next five years, by an 8 – 1 vote. But because the district is already so strapped for funds, the state’s recovery plan doesn’t include many budget cuts and, in fact, includes increases in spending to improve its schools. 

To balance the books, the plan relies on luring 110 charter school students like Dean and Benning back to the district. Those students represent more than $4 million in lost state and federal revenue that the district wants back. Of the 1,800 school-age children in the district’s area, roughly 600 attend charter schools.

Pernell Benning, an eighth grader at Propel Montour, left the Sio-Rox district two years ago because his mom was concerned about fighting at Sto-Rox. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

Some teachers are skeptical that the district can sustain new programs envisioned by the plan because they remember similar programs in the past being cut for financial reasons. Even some board members who voted for the plan on Thursday have voiced doubts about the odds for its success. 

“I don’t see us recovering as quickly,” said board member Tyler Kochirka at a March 24 board meeting. “My concern is we are putting too much assumption that the next two and a half years are going to work really, really well and all these kids are going to pour back from the charter schools.”

But John Zahorchak, the official appointed by the state to oversee the district’s financial recovery, said there is no other option at this point. He pointed to the Duquesne City School District, which lured back 27 students in one year while under state oversight.

“If we can’t bring kids back from the charter schools, there’s going to be trouble,” he said. “By years four and five, by that time if the initiatives have failed, then the district has failed.”

If that happened, the district could decide to close its high school, like Wilkinsburg, or, if insufficient progress is made, the state could take over nearly every aspect of control from the school board.

As they set out on this sweeping plan, school officials hope it could instead spell the beginning of a brighter future.

“I think we are all on the same page that things need to change around here, so this plan could actually be a positive thing for us,” said School Board President Cameron Culliver.

“You have to spend money to make money.”

School Board President Cameron Culliver, right, listens to a teacher’s concerns about the new financial recovery plan on March 24. The plan passed 8 – 1 two weeks later. (Photo by Oliver Morrison / PublicSource)

What’s in the financial recovery plan?

The district has a $4 million deficit, about 13% of its yearly expenses. If nothing is done, the deficit is expected to balloon to over $15 million over the next five years, according to state projections. 

The state’s recovery plan has many parts that will be unpopular to get costs in line. It asks staff and roughly 110 teachers and classroom aides to pay more for their health insurance and gives principals power to make staffing changes. It has incentives to get a handful of teachers to retire early. And it requires significant increases to local property taxes, increasing from 25 to 27.5 mills in the first year alone. It also includes cuts to the transportation and special education budgets.

Kochirka, a board member, argued against the plan to cut transportation because the district suffered from bus breakdowns when it went with a cheaper company, which meant buses were crammed full of too many students. “I don’t want to go back to that cheapest option and Monday morning, there are four kids to a seat,” he said.

“My concern is we are putting too much assumption that the next two and a half years are going to work really, really well and all these kids are going to pour back from the charter schools.”

But there isn’t much else to cut, the state concluded. In 2018, PublicSource reported on how the district lacked basic supplies, like books and reliable Wi-Fi, its buildings suffered from leaks and a lack of staffing required programs to shut. And, in 2020, the district gained notoriety for running out of paper and having to rely on community donations.

Residents in the district have one of the lowest average incomes in the state. And the district’s tax base is so small that tax raises won’t generate enough revenue to recover. So even if everything goes to plan, at the end of five years, the district will still be running a budget deficit, albeit smaller. That optimistic outcome is only possible because of the $13 million windfall in federal COVID relief money.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s new proposed budget would, if passed in full, provide $4 million to the district if it’s not whittled away by state Republicans. And a lawsuit on education funding that has been working its way through the courts for years could eventually provide substantial resources to the district if it succeeds. 

The state recovery plan for Sto-Rox recognizes that any additional cuts in most areas would make a dire situation worse. The average student already misses more than 17 days of school per year. 

Sto-Rox school board member Tyler Kochirka tells the state recovery officer that he’s skeptical the district can transform as quickly as the new plan lays out. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

Fights are frequent, and the district’s test scores have put the elementary and junior/senior high school on state lists of schools that require serious interventions. The plan allocates money for security guards, for math and literacy coaches and department chairs. It also includes significant investment, like salary increases for such hard-to-fill positions as classroom aides and substitute teachers. 

No substitute teachers at the high school has meant teachers routinely spend prep periods covering for other teachers or combining classes of up to 40 students in the room at a time, said Carrie Palermo, longtime teacher and union rep. 

The recovery plan calls for the district to raise test scores for five years up to the state average. But the state recovery officer, Zahorchak, has already begun considering amending the academic goals around growth goals after teachers raised concerns about how much students fell behind during the pandemic. 

Zahorchak said if the district can pull itself together, he hopes it will be making a powerful argument for what could be done with more funding from the state. None of the other six districts in Pennsylvania that have been put under state oversight have yet been able to pull themselves out of financial distress. 

What went wrong?

While the towns of McKees Rocks and Stowe have suffered steady disinvestment, population losses and rising poverty rates since their school systems merged in 1967, the Sto-Rox district remained solvent until relatively recently. 

In 2012, for instance, Sto-Rox ended the school year with a $3 million surplus. Just three years later, the district was $1.5 million in the hole. By 2020, audit results show, the deficit had climbed to $6.5 million, about 20% of its total budget.

Without intervention, the outlook is only expected to worsen.

“We cannot sustain the basic model that we have,” Zahorchak said while presenting the data to the school board on March 10.

Explanations for what went wrong and who’s responsible vary among teachers, school officials and students and families. Many school officials blame charter schools.

Raynell Jean-Baptiste, an eighth grader at Sto-Rox, said she feels unsafe where she lives and her mom is considering moving somewhere near Hazelwood. (Photo by Oliver Morrison / PublicSource)

Charter enrollment among district students has nearly doubled in the last seven years at the same time the fund balance has plummeted.

Public districts are responsible for paying charter students’ tuition and transportation fees, which average around $14,000 per student in Sto-Rox. District Business Manager Paul Sroka said whenever students leave the district for charter options, they rarely recoup what they’re billed for because costs for teaching staff, building maintenance and other resources can’t always be cut in proportion. 

Financial mismanagement has also played a hand in the budgetary crisis. According to an October audit report, the district didn’t pay $900,000 of tax bills, which, compounded by penalties and interest, had simply piled up without explanation.

Right around the time the audit surfaced, former superintendent Frank Dalmas went on leave. He will retire in January 2023. School officials did not disclose why he left, and Dalmas didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The business manager responsible for billings during this period had by then resigned from the district after slightly more than a year on the job. Sroka — who joined the district last July — said the bills represent a broader state of chaos in the business office he inherited, which he believes is the result of years of poor hiring.

“Part of it was having the business manager as the lowest common denominator, and that coming back to hurt you,” Sroka said. “You have to have stability and accountability in the business office.”

Jacky Hardiman, a previous business manager who left the district in November 2019, insists all billing was up to date when she departed. Deflecting blame from the business office, Hardiman said Dalmas and former board president Samantha Levitzki-Wright repeatedly dismissed her concerns about the spiraling deficit when she raised them during board meetings.

Levitzki-Wright, now a regular board member, recalls this differently.

Long-time Sto-Rox teachers Denise McMichael (left) and Carrie Palermo showed up at a school board meeting with other teachers on March 24 to raise concerns after learning the details of the district’s new financial recovery plan. (Photos by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

“We told her to not keep reminding us of the deficit because that was her excuse for everything,” she said. “We know we’re in debt. The question is what to do with that.”

Levtzki-Wright’s successor Cameron Culliver said he’s trying to use his position as board president to encourage better relationships with school administrators and to increase oversight of district operations. 

“There are a lot of things that haven’t been going right, between relationship-building, between different leadership positions throughout the entire district, that we’re trying to rebuild,” Culliver said. “So far, I would say it’s working.”

What will it take to get the charter students back?

In November, Hasson Shackleford, a high school student at Sto-Rox was shot and killed on his way home from school. Raynell Jean-Baptiste, an eighth grader at Sto-Rox, was cousins with Shackleford and said she feels sad when she walks by spots in school she used to see him. Her mom is thinking about moving near Hazelwood to get away from the violence that pummeled Sto-Rox worse than anywhere in Allegheny County in 2021.

Because of students like Jean-Baptiste, student safety is the most urgent need of the district, according to district committee members in charge of implementing the state’s recovery plan. Some of the district’s first steps are likely to be hiring security guards and visiting nearby districts, like Penn Hills, that have implemented behavioral intervention programs.

“Making schools safe is much more than a plan on a wall and a couple of people who carry a gun,” said Megan Van Fossan, the assistant to the superintendent as of this school year, at a March 31 meeting of the committee. “We’re really trying to go to the root cause of every negative behavior so we can address it proactively.”

Tristin Dean, a ninth grader at Propel Montour, says her mom thought she would be safer at the charter school. But violence still found her after school. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

Dean, a ninth grader at Propel Montour, says her mom thought she would be safer at the charter school. But violence still found her after school. Dean and her friends were hanging out on the steps of an empty school building in March, when the owner of the building drove after them in his truck, threw Dean to the ground and pinned her.

“I was scared, so scared,” she said.  

Dean says she is less distracted at Propel, too. Most of her friends attend Sto-Rox, leaving her to focus on schoolwork.

Before the pandemic, students at Propel Montour, the closest charter school to Sto-Rox, were outperforming Sto-Rox students on state tests. Nearly twice as many elementary students were on grade level in English and four times as many in math. But Propel educates fewer special education students and students with financial challenges. And the latest test scores show Propel Montour’s elementary students have fallen behind during the pandemic to the point where their test scores are nearly identical with the district’s.

“If we can’t bring kids back from the charter schools, there’s going to be trouble. By years four and five, by that time if the initiatives have failed, then the district has failed.”

“Given the unique and unprecedented learning conditions over the past few years, it is challenging to interpret PSSA results or to compare schools based on those results,” said Sonya Meadows, a spokesperson for Propel.

Shallegra Moye, a doctoral student studying urban education at the University of Pittsburgh, was sending her child to a charter school before she moved into the district and has continued to do so. Moye believes education funding isn’t meant to save the Sto-Rox district but instead is intended for the education of the students of Sto-Rox. “Families want their children to be safe, psychologically safe, physically safe. They want them to have an opportunity to excel academically,” she said. 

In 2018 there was renewed enthusiasm in Sto-Rox after the community raised funds for a new football field and hired a new superintendent. But since then the district’s financial challenges have become more severe. (Photos by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Sto-Rox is starting to reach out to former students to try to understand why they left and is already trying to draw students into its newly created cyber school. In addition to trying to improve its own offerings, it is putting a staff member in charge of recruiting charter students. It also plans on increasing funding for the career and technical education program it sends students to at Parkway West Career and Technology Center, where students can earn college credit and trade certifications.

But Moye said the district should be looking to the state for help. “Instead of using your energy to fight against a charter school,” she said, “we should be batting down the doors of Harrisburg and D.C. for fair and equitable funding for all students.”

Correction (4/12/2022): This article was corrected to show the current status of Frank Dalmas’ employment.

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

Jamie Wiggan is the editor-in-chief of Gazette 2.0 and can be reached by email at jamie@gazette20.com.

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

This story was co-published by PublicSource and Gazette 2.0.

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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...