Board to tackle Schenley referendum

A decision could come as soon as Wednesday on letting voters decide whether to renovate the Oakland school

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The city school board may vote as soon as Wednesday on member Theresa Colaizzi's proposal for a referendum on whether to renovate the Pittsburgh Schenley High School building.

A day after going public with the idea, Ms. Colaizzi yesterday reiterated her desire to resolve the controversy with a ballot question and said Pittsburgh Public Schools Solicitor Ira Weiss is working on a resolution that she hopes to introduce at Wednesday's legislative meeting.

Mr. Weiss said the resolution would include the text of the referendum and authorize placement on the November ballot. He said he's finished writing the resolution and is having it reviewed by the district's bond counsel.

The referendum would be put to voters in the city and in Mount Oliver, which is part of the school district.

"For a lot of people in school finance, this is like new territory," said Dave Davare, director of research services for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. He said such referendums have been rare since a 1972 law gave government bodies increased power to borrow on their own.

Superintendent Mark Roosevelt has asked the board to vote Wednesday to close the Oakland building effective June 30. But Ms. Colaizzi said she's willing to keep the building's status in limbo until voters speak their minds.

Mr. Roosevelt says the district cannot afford $76.2 million in renovations to Schenley. School supporters argue a more modest overhaul would cost less than $40 million, and they call that a reasonable investment in a flagship school.

Kathy Fine, a leader of the Save Schenley movement, said the alliance's support for a referendum would hinge on the wording.

At the board's agenda review, Ms. Colaizzi proposed asking whether voters wanted the district to borrow $80 million to renovate Schenley.

Ms. Fine said school supporters would want the question to reflect the domino effect of Schenley's closing, including the costs of renovating other buildings to absorb Schenley students. Supporters argue that the renovation of other buildings could equal the cost of a Schenley overhaul.

Even if voters approve a borrowing, the school board wouldn't have to go forward with the project, Mr. Weiss said. But Ms. Colaizzi, for one, said she would stand by the electorate's wishes.

"If the people tell me yes, why wouldn't I do it?" she said, adding she doubts voters would approve of the project.

Dr. Davare said at least five of nine board members must agree on the referendum's wording.

If voters approve a borrowing and the board proceeds with the project, voters down the road could face a second referendum about a tax increase to cover the debt, Mr. Weiss said.

"Unfortunately, you can't combine the two" referendums, he said, adding the district would be in a tight spot if voters rejected the second ballot question. He said debt service on $80 million would be $6 million to $7 million a year, or about 0.75 mill in taxes.

City Council has discussed a nonbinding resolution urging the school district to further study the Schenley issue before voting to close the building.

Councilman Patrick Dowd, a former school board member, yesterday sent his colleagues a letter suggesting they not intervene in school affairs unless they want to "contribute positively" to the debate.


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


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