CAPA's darkened screen costly to repair

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A visible reminder of the difficult financial choices faced by Pittsburgh Public Schools is the three-story-tall video screen that is dark on the exterior of Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, Downtown.

The $2.7 million screen -- measuring 30 feet high by 21 feet wide -- was installed when the school opened in 2003 but now needs costly repairs or replacement.

Early on, the screen was dark because of a zoning dispute, but once it was turned on in 2004, it was used regularly to display student artwork and information related to the school in a prominent spot fronting Fort Duquesne Boulevard and the Allegheny River.

But in recent years, its use has been sporadic because it is in disrepair. This school year, except for occasional testing, the sign hasn't been used at all. District officials have been trying to figure out how much it would cost to repair and maintain the sign.

Vidyadhar Patil, director of facilities and plant operations for the district, estimated it would take about $75,000 to get it up and running -- including both inside and outside equipment -- and about $50,000 in yearly maintenance, but he said a technician would be needed to make a more exact estimate. In addition, questions, such as the availability of parts, would need to be answered.

A new sign would cost about $1 million to $1.2 million, he said.

The potential expense comes at a time when CAPA has lost some of its adjunct arts instructors, an unprecedented number of teachers districtwide were laid off and many schools have bigger classes as the district faces a growing deficit.

"We have to look at every penny, every dollar," Mr. Patil said.

CAPA principal Melissa Pearlman said, "During the early years of the sign, this was a wonderful opportunity. I completely understand that the cost of repairing the sign is now a challenge in light of the district's fiscal challenges."

No final decision has been made on the CAPA sign.

Mr. Patil said the sign actually is two Panasonic screens, one atop the other. Each screen has 256 modules, which each contains hundreds of LED lights.

When a module goes out, it must be sent to Japan for repair or replacement, a process that takes several months.

Most such signs are serviced from the back, but this one has custom anchoring so it could be placed on the building's facade. It is only about nine inches from the exterior wall, so it must be serviced from the front. That is a challenge because the sign is so tall, with the bottom of the sign above the first floor. A cherry picker or similar equipment must be brought in and permits secured to close a lane of traffic when repairs are needed.

When the sign was in full use, Ms. Pearlman said, "It was magnificent. It offered the community a chance to see art in action, especially from our visual arts students that don't always get the same stage time as our other creative and performing arts.

"Students were at the helm of thinking about what digital media looked like as an art form in the 20th century."

Rather than visual arts existing only in the isolation of the building, Ms. Pearlman said, the display was "getting people to think and ponder about the different statements [students] wanted to make and adding a whole new aesthetic to the building and certainly the Downtown area."

But over the years, exposure to the weather and other factors have caused corrosion and deterioration. As lights burned out, the ability to appropriately display artwork diminished.

"Students felt somewhat disappointed when the artwork wasn't exactly as they had designed it," Ms. Pearlman said.

So, in recent years, the sign was used occasionally for videos to promote the school, such as when CAPA competed to try to have President Barack Oabama speak at commencement in 2011.

"It proved a little better on the eyes, and it didn't have the same kind of dismantled look because of the burned-out bulbs," Ms. Pearlman said.

Now, she said, "We keep it off because the more you run it, the more the cells were burning out. ... Only recently has it been turned on once or twice trying to investigate some possibilities around repairing."

Inside the building, the proprietary controllers and other equipment needed for the screen also were breaking.

By some measures, the once state-of-the-art sign is outdated.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust also operates two big video screens at Theater Square -- each about 14 feet by 14 feet -- of a similar vintage.

The trust's signs, which were manufactured by Trans-Lux, cost a total of $500,000 and have been used since 2003, said Marc Fleming, vice president of marketing and communications for the trust.

He said the boards must be repaired eight or nine times a year, but parts are available in a day or two.

"They're coming toward the end of their useful existence," he said, adding the trust is looking into replacing the boards with newer technology in the "near future." He believes the Theater Square boards are important to the Cultural District.

"We're all about creating excitement in the Cultural District. The boards outside certainly give a feel of Times Square for Downtown Pittsburgh here."

As for CAPA, Ms. Pearlman said visual arts students currently can showcase their work in other ways.

Over the years, the school has expanded opportunities for visual arts students to display works in the community at venues such as the Andy Warhol Museum and the Allegheny County Courthouse.

"We will continue to find new and innovative ways to share our students' artwork with the greater Pittsburgh community," she said.

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Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955.


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