Penn Hills: A (Tragic) Love Story

I’m a Penn Hills guy. I’ve lived in some of the most unique and dynamic places in the nation, yet I’ve never been around as many talented, genuine, and engaging people as I have growing up in Allegheny County’s second-largest municipality. 

I played baseball at Davidson College, but my fondest memories come from Bessemer Field and Penn Hills Park.

I can tell you what radio show hosts grew up in Penn Hills. I know what great athletes (from football greats like the late Bill Fralic to some of my contemporaries) grew up in our neighborhoods.  When I find out that a business owner grew up from around my way, I give that owner my business. I always have. 

I grew up here, but there’s one thing that I’ve never been: a Penn Hills school student.

That’s because my dad saw a tragic, avoidable train wreck of fiscal woes, academic performance failures, and safety concerns coming down the track for the Penn Hills School District years in advance. It made him an advocate for school choice and education reform decades before the term took root in our everyday lives. He preached it to anyone he talked to. He lived it with his working-class salary, sending me to parochial schools until I earned a scholarship .

Unfortunately, he was right.

Penn Hills schools were the envy of Allegheny County roughly 50 years ago. Now, Penn Hills High School performs worse than over 80% of the high schools in the Keystone State.

My father watched as school costs (and his property taxes) went up as the quality of the education went down. In 2008, this concerning trend accelerated when the district decided to undergo a multi-million dollar building project despite declining enrollment. As accusations of pay-to-play and repairs for the new buildings mount, the long-term debt of the school district has soared from $11 million to over $170 million with a $11 million deficit in its budget.  This persists even as Penn Hills has the third-highest property tax rates in Allegheny County.

It’s sad.

Penn Hills seems to be following the example of the Wilkinsburg School District, where the increase to a 29.25 millage rate (second-highest in Allegheny County at one point) did not stop the closure of Wilkinsburg High School in 2016 due to declining enrollment and poor academic performance. Just as Wilkinsburg’s once-proud school district dwindled in size, Penn Hills High School has shrunk from an enrollment of well over 2,000 students to under 1,400 students. And, due to continued academic failures, Penn Hills students qualify for Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit dollars to find better scholastic horizons outside of the district. I know families that take advantage of this already, eager to avoid the growing issues of safety concerns, academic shortcomings, and bureaucratic woes that have been mounting for some time.

Yet, Penn Hills officials are seeking to increase the millage rate to over 30.5 mills, knowing that the additional dollars will not go towards educating our children, but fixing the budget mess.

Penn Hills parents deserve options that will allow their children to escape the failures of the Penn Hills School District, and ensure that their children do not become the latest casualties of bad decisions undertaken by adults furthest away from classrooms. The OSTC is a critical lifeline for these families and one that deserves expansion.

My dad said as much years ago.

“If I’m paying this much in taxes just for you to ride Penn Hills school buses,” he used to tell me, “then I’ll take you to school myself. The performance of the school district isn’t worth what I’m paying in taxes. They should give me my school tax money back to help pay for your education since they can’t do the job.”

I have to admit: it's hard to watch someone I love so much speak the hard truth about a community I love so much. It's hard to watch a great town with a great history collapse under the weight of poor leadership decisions. And yet, as a Penn Hills guy, it's hard not to feel the same way now that my dad felt about me all those years ago. It's all the more reason to expand the number of students and families that can exercise school choice to access quality education today while instilling accountability that can improve schools like Penn Hills in the future.