Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has announced the launch of a new working group to study the idea of creating a countywide children’s fund to support pre-kindergarten and after-school programs.
Sound familiar? It’s broadly the same proposal that was defeated in a referendum in November of last year, a fact acknowledged by the County Executive’s office.
“The effort last year resulted in having more than 250,000 voters say yes; this is important to them too,” said Fitzgerald via a press release. “And many other voters wanted to know more — which is why I’ve convened this group, to help all of us put together what a countywide program can look like.”
Under last year’s proposal, the fund would have been replenished by a 0.25 millage rate increase to county property taxes, creating about $18 million a year in funds for out-of-school programming for students and more nutritious meals. The proposal was supported by Mayor Peduto and other community leaders.
However, in the lead-up to the vote, Fitzgerald and other leading Democrats including Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said they supported the idea of the fund, but balked at the proposed tax increase. They opposed the measure.
The new, 26-member body includes many prominent Pittsburghers including Allegheny County Council member and long-time labor leader DeWitt Walton, as well as Valerie Kinloch, the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.
“This is a process that is intended to provide more information and detail to everyone in the county about the needs and challenges as it relates to pre-k education and out-of-school programming,” said Amie Downs, communications director for Allegheny County. “The County Executive intends to receive the report with an open mind, and hopes the public will too.”
The local advocacy group Allies for Children led last year’s effort. Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Executive Director Patrick Dowd said that while his organization has no formal role in the current working group, they are ready to assist with the process in any way they can.
The new working group will create separate proposals for funds with annual budgets of $5 million, $10 million and $20 million, respectively. These concepts, as well as input from community leaders, will be presented to the County Executive in a report six months from now.
“Ensuring that the children in Allegheny County have the best services available to them is important to me and is why I’ve put this working group together,” said Fitzgerald. “Children who have access to quality early childhood learning have improved social skills, better grades and enhanced attention spans. Children who have access to after-school programs do better in school, have fewer behavioral problems and do not become involved with crime as young adults.”
The press release laying out the group’s mandate makes no mention of potential funding sources, which are likely to remain the most controversial part of the project. Stay tuned for more coverage on that.
Downs does tell NEXTpittsburgh that the County Executive remains opposed to raising county taxes for such an initiative: “The County Executive is open to any recommendations that come from the committee, but has also made it clear that he hopes to see the legislature provide more funding options to counties to meet local needs like this.”