Board OKs merger of city arts schools

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City school board members voted 6-3 last night to merge the respected middle-grade and high school arts schools, overriding parents' concerns about space, academic quality and other issues.

Voting for the merger were board members Theresa Colaizzi, Jean Fink, Sherry Hazuda, Floyd "Skip" McCrea, Thomas Sumpter and President Bill Isler. Voting no were Heather Arnet, Mark Brentley Sr. and Randall Taylor.

Critics said the merger could harm two of the city's best schools.

"They're flirting with disaster here," Lisa Brown, a Lincoln Place resident and former president of the high school parent group, said of board members.

In fall 2009, Pittsburgh Rogers 6-8 will give up its Garfield location and move into the Downtown building housing Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

The vote followed Mr. Taylor's efforts to table the issue for additional study.

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt proposed the merger last fall, when three additional floors became available in the high school building on Ninth Street. Rogers' current home is deteriorating, and Mr. Roosevelt previously had proposed moving Rogers into the former Milliones Middle School building in the Hill District.

The combined arts magnet will be the first district school for grades six through 12; three more are planned. The merger will cost an estimated $7.2 million, less than half of the estimated cost of moving Rogers into Milliones.

Opposition to the merger had been mounting in recent weeks, with some parents and other arts supporters claiming that there wouldn't be adequate space for both schools.

Other concerns ranged from whether it would be wise to mix middle-grade and high school students in the building to whether a nearby strip club would be a negative influence on the younger students.

The critics, called Task Force for Excellence in Education at CAPA, invited board members to a breakfast meeting Tuesday to argue their case. Linda Doernberg, a task force member, said no board members showed up.

The group also circulated a 29-page report, prepared by high school teacher and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers building representative William Hileman, that attacked the merger proposal and called it a money-saving move.

In the end, most board members accepted administrators' assurances that the building has enough space and other concerns had been thoroughly vetted.

"I had some real soul-searching over this," Ms. Fink said, adding she's now confident neither school will be harmed by the merger.

But Mr. Brentley said he was dismayed that the district would tamper with high-performing schools, and Mr. Taylor said he was disappointed that the board would add to the "rancor and division" in the district by pushing through the proposal before parents were comfortable with it.

It was the second time in as many months that the board approved a school reorganization over strong public objections. Citing deteriorating conditions, the board last month voted to close the Pittsburgh Schenley High School building, move Schenley's remaining students to another building and assign future ninth-graders to new schools.


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


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