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With the weight of an unprecedented year on their shoulders amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board decided against a proposed property tax increase and adopted a $673.84 million school budget for 2021 on Wednesday. The district will keep its millage rate at 9.95 in the upcoming year. However, with that vote, the budget deficit is expected to grow by about $4 million, Chief Financial Officer Ronald Joseph said at the meeting.

In remarks to the board at the top of the budget discussion, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet asked the group to consider the tax increase to 10.21 mills and said that it was just one strategy of a multi-pronged approach by the administration to address a $34.8 million deficit — now increased by $4 million without the tax increase. The plan includes reducing expenditures.

Much was at stake in the 2021 budget. Hamlet released the district’s preliminary budget to the board on Nov. 12. The $673.84 million budget represents an increase of about $9 million from the 2020 adopted budget of $664.80 million.

The budget adopted Wednesday reflected battling interests in a year where the district, still recovering from financial shortfalls, must address increased costs and growing student needs either created or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, from Community Learning Hubs to rising charter school payments.

Advocates from multiple activist groups in recent weeks have called on the board to divest from police and security and increase student support services, as well as to increase funding for Community Learning Hubs, small learning hubs set up by nonprofits throughout the city to serve students whose caregivers are unable to assist with online schooling during the day. Here are some takeaways from the board’s December legislative meeting.

View the 2021 Preliminary General Fund Budget here

[ICYMI: ‘By the Book’ PGH K-12 Bulletins]

Proposed tax increase struck down by the board

A proposal to increase the district’s millage rate to 10.21 failed on Wednesday in a vote where five board members voted no and one abstained, following an extended conversation about the impact a tax could have both on the community and on the budget deficit. Multiple board members expressed concerns about the property tax increase, which would have come as economic conditions worsened due to the ongoing pandemic. At 9.95 the district millage rate is among the lowest for school districts in Allegheny County.

What’s a millage rate? When was the last time it was raised? Find out here.

Why didn’t they raise taxes? 

Several board members spoke about not wanting to increase hardships on families already struggling to adjust to virtual learning and the pandemic, which for some families resulted in job losses and exacerbated learning inequities.

Board Member Veronica Edwards spoke about her experiences helping students and families to get access to essential services since the pandemic struck in March, “to make things a little easier for them.”

“For me to go back [to them] and say, ‘Well, we increased taxes,’ while their children aren’t in school and struggle to be on the computer … I cannot in good conscience bear a harder burden on these people,” Edwards said.

Udin echoed Edwards’ remarks.

“Our student population has gone down. … And the students, since March, have not been in school, in the school buildings,” Board Member Sala Udin said. “Now some of us will say that does not have a proportionate effect on the cost of running the school district, but I think in the minds of taxpayers, they believe that schools not being in session should create an overall reduction in costs, and they don’t understand why if schools are not in session and the buses are not rolling, why we are being asked to increase taxes.”

PublicSourceWhen was the last tax increase?The board voted in 2019 to increase the millage rate from 9.84 to 9.95 mills, an additional $12 paid by property owners each year, per $100,000 of assessed value. The millage rate, prior to 2019, hadn’t increased since 2014 when it increased from 9.65 to 9.84.What effect will this have on the budget?The district initially calculated a deficit of $34.8 million with a 10.21 mill rate, but with a 9.95 mill rate, the district deficit will increase to about $39.5 million, an additional $4 million, according to Chief Financial Officer Ronald Joseph.