Protesters decry Bethel Park's planned $98 million high school

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Even as the Bethel Park school board forges ahead with plans to build a new high school on the 80-acre site of its existing campus, the $98 million project still has its foes.

More than 100 of them gathered in protest last night, holding signs and chanting as they marched from the high school to the administration building, where they flooded an otherwise routine school board meeting.

Calling themselves "Save the Bethel High," the protesters said they're upset the board has not brought the issue of the new building to a referendum and said the project is expensive and unnecessary.

"Look around," Bethel Park parent Jeff Becker said, pointing to the school's brick, campus-style buildings as he and others walked in the rain toward the meeting. "Do you see buildings falling down? There are some communities that would love to have a campus like this."

Mr. Becker organized an effort to bring the issue to public vote through a Web site, savebethelhigh.com, and said more than 900 people have signed an online petition asking the board to stop its plans, which have already moved into the schematic phase.

The school board has no legal obligation to delay construction and has already jumped several large hurdles to pursue the major reconstruction.

The district was twice denied a variance from the municipal Zoning Hearing Board, appealing in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, where Judge Joseph James ruled the school district had established a hardship and should be granted permission to build.

A public hearing to provide information and solicit taxpayers' response was held in February, among many other opportunities they have had to voice their concerns, district spokeswoman Vicki Flotta said last night.

Even before a lengthy public comment portion of the meeting, those opposed to the plan shared their objections, often loudly, booing during a budget presentation by Superintendent Thomas Knight and applauding and cheering after each statement against rebuilding.

The board was slated to vote on its budget last night but tabled the measure because, she said, members wanted to seek ways to reduce a millage tax increase.

The original high school had its first graduating class in 1960. A construction project in 1996 upgraded about half of the high school buildings for $20 million.

"Would you tear down your house because its 40 years old?" Mr. Becker said. "Would anyone?"

Several students also joined the chorus of voices against the plan, saying they like the campus-style, as it gives them a chance to walk outdoors between classes. Freshmen Samantha Tarr and Angelina Hernley said they don't believe the building needs major renovations.

Construction is expected to begin this summer and it will be about two years before students will be able to occupy the new building. The board is working with architects on what will be a four-level structure featuring four separate "houses" in the academic wing as well as arts and athletics facilities.

"Too much money, not enough community input," said parent Dan Lucarelli. "I'd like to see the school board stop the project and ask the taxpayers of Bethel Park if this is really what they want to happen."


Sadie Gurman can be reached at sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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