City board faces tough issues in trying to sell 27 old schools

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The financially strapped city school district faces difficult choices as it seeks buyers for as many as 27 school buildings, including several to be closed under the district's new reorganization plan.

The issues include whether to sell to charter schools, which could both take the buildings off the tax rolls and take a bite out of the district's budget, and how far the district should go in acceding to what the neighborhood considers the best use for the property.

Richard R. Fellers, chief operations officer, said school board members will try to balance financial and neighborhood concerns during a stepped-up effort to market surplus property. But he said the district wants to sell buildings as quickly as possible and prefers buyers who will return them to the tax rolls.

The district's approach already has drawn criticism. City Councilman William Peduto, claiming the district has mishandled the proposed sale of the former Regent Square Elementary School, is demanding the district use a better process for selling other buildings.

The board will hold a special hearing at 7 tonight to take public comment on the fate of the 33,488-square-foot Regent Square building, closed in 2004. That building highlights the district's difficulties.

School House Finance, a group that wants to open a charter school, was top bidder with a $3 million offer.

The school board liked the bid, which is three times the building's appraised value. But the board grumbled when Mr. Fellers said School House Finance could seek nonprofit status for the competing school and keep the building off the tax rolls.

The board received two other bids, $1.1 million and $910,000, for the building. The second-highest bidder wanted to convert the building for apartments, and the other bidder wanted to use it as a treatment center.

The board must sell the school to the highest bidder or reject all bids.

The board scheduled tonight's hearing because it wanted to hear the public's thoughts about the sale. But Mr. Peduto said that's too little, too late.

"They're looking with blinders on," he said, claiming school officials don't see how reused schools could breathe life into neighborhoods.

Instead of gathering input at the 11th hour, he said, the district should have sought public comment at the beginning of the sale process and sought a buyer willing to conform to community development plans.

A+ Schools, a Downtown education group, has put together a group of architects and developers to tour closed buildings and analyze potential uses. In addition, A+ Schools wants to convene neighborhood meetings to gather public comment on best uses for the buildings.

The district's inventory of closed buildings will swell to 27 with Superintendent Mark Roosevelt's plan to close 22 schools and 18 buildings at the end of the school year. Proceeds from building sales can be used for debt service or capital projects, such as renovations to Schenley High School.

Mr. Fellers said the district's efforts to sell the Regent Square building go back a year, before Mr. Peduto and the community groups proposed the neighborhood-driven "Vacant School Reuse Project." But Mr. Fellers said the district has a history of working with neighborhood groups.

For example, he said the district is working with Mount Washington Community Development Corp. and the city Urban Redevelopment Authority to sell South Hills High School to a developer who has proposed using the building for senior housing and retail shops. Mr. Fellers said the district would sell the 228,000-square-foot building, closed about 1986, for a nominal amount because of extensive maintenance problems.

Mr. Peduto said the district has little choice but to accept neighborhood advice. He noted the district cannot sell buildings without the help of city agencies that grant zoning changes and offer financial incentives to developers.

But board member Daniel Romaniello Sr. and Solicitor Ira Weiss said the district has a responsibility to get the best price for buildings. Mr. Weiss said the district would invite a lawsuit by limiting uses for properties it wants to sell.

"There are competing interests here, and there are laws to observe," Mr. Weiss said.

The closed or soon-to-be-closed buildings range in size from 14,563 square feet to 233,822 square feet. Some are historically significant; others, built in the 1970s, have pools and gymnasiums that neighborhoods would like to keep open. Some are more valuable than others.

The district has postponed a plan to sell its largest available building, Connelley Vocational-Technical Institute and Adult Education Center, which was "closed" in 2004 but still houses administrative offices and some shop classes. Isle of Capri has proposed building a casino and hockey venue near Connelley, a development that would increase the building's value.

Post-Gazette


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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