Pittsburgh Public Schools has experienced steady declines in student enrollment over recent years, and the state predicts it will only continue to drop.

PPS’ latest enrollment numbers, released in November, show a student population of 18,650, down from 19,160 in 2021-22. The state Department of Education predicts that the district will lose another 5,800 students by the school year 2031-32, bringing enrollment numbers down to nearly 12,800 students.

Ted Dwyer, chief of data, research, evaluation and assessment at PPS, said a shrinking regional population is the major reason for declining student enrollment in the district. According to his research of enrollment trends since 2008, the district has seen a consistent 2% annual drop in enrollment since 2008-09. The loss was more pronounced during the pandemic; the district lost 3.9% of students in 2020-21 and 6.3% last year.

“That's also something that was seen in a lot of districts for the pandemic period, but for the 2022-23 school year, we see based on our October enrollment, a 2% loss again, so we've gone back to where we were before the pandemic,” Dwyer said.

PPS already has excess building capacity of about 19,545 seats, as reported in advocacy group A+ Schools’ 2022 Report to the Community.

With fewer students in schools, it may become difficult for the district to keep up with the increased costs of maintaining its aging school buildings, leading to potential school closures or bids to consolidate with other school districts.

School closures or consolidations might be considered

Low student enrollment could lead to difficulty maintaining school buildings and eventual closures.

“There's already a cost for maintaining those buildings. As we have fewer students and we don't have the schools filled, it becomes less efficient,” said Dwyer.

Becky Boll, a parent with two children in PPS, is concerned about the implications of school closures. “A concern is just the commute for families. If people have further to go to get to schools, it's going to be harder to get them there. And we need kids to be in school to learn, so I think truancy potentially becomes an even greater issue,” she said in an interview.

In an interview on WESA, Superintendent Wayne Walters said the district’s leadership team is working on design principles to address the allocation of its resources that “don’t necessarily speak to closing of schools.”

He said the district has to make some decisions, consider its offerings and look at efficiency, but ensure that “communities are not further marginalized.”

James Fogarty, executive director of A+ Schools, emphasized the need for PPS to address excess building capacity by thinking about creating equity instead of just conversations about school closures.

“When the last round of school closures happened, they happened in predominantly low-income neighborhoods, predominantly Black-serving neighborhoods. I think we've got to make sure that that doesn't happen again,” he said, referring to the closing of seven schools in 2012 as part of a district realignment plan.

PPS Board President Sala Udin said the board is working on a new strategic plan that will include strategies for the district’s physical facilities and how to accommodate the lower population. He added that he’d like the board to consider not just closures, but consolidations with other nearby school districts such as Sto-Rox.

“One of the things that we have to look at very closely is the funding of schools by property tax,” he said. “That is not a tenable way of funding public education and the ability to maintain school buildings, especially based on the size of the population of 10 years ago.”

For Sto-Rox’s part, the district provided a statement, saying they have not been approached and have no interest in consolidating.

State funding could decline

Declining student enrollment could lead to a smaller share of funding that the district gets from the state. If state funding declines, it could result in the district more heavily relying on revenue generated from local taxpayers.

School districts do not have any control over their mandatory expenses such as pension costs, charter school costs and special education costs, said Andrew Christ, managing director of government affairs at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. As these costs keep increasing, districts turn to the state for more money.

The district’s 2023 general budget includes a revenue total of about $666 million, of which $380 million is generated through taxes and $278 million comes from the state.

PPS comes under the state’s hold harmless policy, which allows districts to receive at least as much basic education funding as they received before 2014-15, with a slight increase to adjust for inflation. This provision protects the district from the fiscal effects of declining student enrollment to some degree.

Under the fair funding formula of 2016, state funding to school districts is distributed based on current enrollment, with increased weight for students living in poverty and other student need factors. As PPS continues to see declining enrollment, this could result in the district receiving less state money depending on the amount of new funding that the legislators put in the budget each year.

As PPS continues getting a smaller share of the state funding and the mandatory costs continue to increase, it could create serious financial problems, said Christ. “If you don't have the state financial support to pay those costs, then you have to rely on your local taxpayers,” he said. “That could be a very difficult position for the school district to be in.”

Increasing charter schools costs are a concern

Sherri Smith, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said charter schools saw a spike in enrollment with the onset of COVID-19, but since the initial impact, those numbers have stabilized.

Last year PPS had 219 students come from charter schools and 299 students go to charter schools, said Dwyer. Students leaving for charter schools has “... been pretty consistent over time,” he added. “It has increased as charter schools have added grades or as we have added new charter schools.”

School boards vote to allow charter schools within their boundaries, and denials can be appealed to the state. When a student from a given district opts for a charter, the district pays the charter based on a state-set formula.

PPS paid a per-pupil subsidy of about $17,900 for general education and about $42,850 for special education for students enrolled in charter schools in 2020-21. In the previous year, the district paid over $106 million in tuition to charter schools.

Cristina Ruggiero, a parent whose daughter goes to Colfax Elementary, is concerned about rising charter school costs. “That is a huge drain on the school district's budget. … Funding formula is a problem when charter schools have surplus budgets that they get to retain from the district. Whereas that money could have gone to district schools,” she said.

Udin said he thinks the state needs to reform charter school funding so they do not take a considerable portion of public school funding.

The district’s future is tied to the city’s stability

Dwyer said he thinks the district needs to work closely with the city to ensure that it does not lose more students as the city’s declining population has an impact on the school district.

“When the city loses people, the school district loses people,” he said.

Data shows that the overall population in the city has remained stable in the last decade but the under-18 population has dropped by 17%.

“The population under 18, which is not quite [identical to] school enrollment age, but nonetheless, those numbers over the last decade did come down fairly significantly,” said Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s University Center for Social and Urban Research. “Even though the overall population stabilized, the number of children over the last decade has certainly come down a fair bit.”

Dwyer said most urban districts across the nation are experiencing a decline in enrollment. In comparison, the Reading school district, the state’s third largest, had about 17,490 students in 2013 and is projected to have about 14,870 students by 2031.

Housing, employment opportunities and positive school experiences are some of the things that a community needs to have to attract young families, said Smith.

When the city loses people, the district loses people.Ted Dwyer

Fogarty agrees, “We've got to think kind of holistically. … How do we make Pittsburgh a great place for families with young children to live and thrive?”

He said the district needs a set of solutions for enrollment decline that includes creating opportunities and leveraging resources to keep people in their neighborhoods and to attract other people.

Outreach, counseling, wraparound seen as keys to stable enrollment

Former PPS Superintendent Linda Lane, who served from 2010 to 2015, said long-term, the district could connect with families through early childhood education and could implement programs that would attract and retain families in their schools.

“Reaching out to them early, though, I think is extremely important,” she said.

Fogarty suggested that the district could focus on re-enrolling students who left the district for charter schools and are in transition years such as fifth or eighth grades to increase student enrollment.

At least one PPS school has found a formula for growth.

In recent years, Schiller 6-8 has seen an increase in student enrollment and reduced chronic absenteeism by adopting strategies for family engagement. Schiller also started a STEAM magnet to attract more students and hired a counselor to work with parents and students.

Udin said the district has been in communication with the city administration to work on attracting young families to Pittsburgh by offering the city “an extraordinary high-performing school district.” The district is taking steps to move in that direction, he said, including hiring a new chief of curriculum and instruction to improve the quality of education across all subjects.

“We have to offer the communities and our families better wraparound services, social services, mental health services, extended school day, tutoring,” he said. “All of those programs increase the quality of public education and, if we are provided with the funding that allows us to offer those services, then we intend to do so.”

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at Rtvsrece. She can be reached at lajja@rtvsrece.com

This story was fact-checked by Aavin Mangalmurti.

The Fund for Investigative Journalism helped to fund this project.

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Lajja is the K-12 Education Reporter at Rtvsrece. 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...