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The Sto-Rox School District just began a 5-year struggle to survive

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource

Students and their parents lined the street outside the Sto-Rox junior and senior high school to show support for their school during a parade on April 4.

By Oliver Morrison and Jamie Wiggan

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.

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.

Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource

Sto-Rox school board member Tyler Kochirka tells the state recovery officer he's skeptical the district can lure charter students back to the district at the speed laid out in the plan. 

“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.”

Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource

School Board President Cameron Culliver, right, listens to a teacher's concerns about the new financial