Roosevelt says high school building needs $76 million in repairs
May 20, 2008 4:00 AM
City school Superintendent Mark Roosevelt makes his case for closing Schenley High School at last night's board meeting.
By Joe Smydo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt last night said the district can't afford to renovate the Pittsburgh Schenley High School building and recommended closing it in June.
Speaking at a school board education committee meeting, Mr. Roosevelt said a new architectural report this month indicated renovation costs would be $76.2 million, not the $64.4 million officials had been citing since October.
He said the financially troubled district must continue to cut spending, not add to the strain that debt service already places on the operating budget.
"Unfortunately, though we value and love the Schenley facility, we cannot afford to renovate it," Mr. Roosevelt said.
District revenues have increased only 5.93 percent since 2003, according to Mr. Roosevelt.
Although he's been able to shore up the district's finances by cutting positions and bringing $45 million in additional revenue from government and private sources, he said the district's situation remains "precarious."
Mr. Roosevelt said renovating Schenley would add $7 million a year to the district's debt service for 20 years, an unacceptable figure given the district's need to invest money in initiatives to raise academic achievement districtwide.
He said additional debt also would have a negative effect on the district's bond rating, leading to higher borrowing costs.
Board members were saddened by the recommendation.
"We tried to take absolutely everything under consideration. We did the best we could," board member Theresa Colaizzi said.
Board member Jean Fink said, "This is truly a sad day for most of us that really appreciate and love our historic structures."
Schenley supporters reacted angrily.
"It's exactly what I expected," said Jen Lakin, a Point Breeze parent.
Highland Park parent Jill Weiss said she was "very disappointed he felt like he needed to make the decision at this point."
The announcement follows months of debate about the future of a landmark building and a popular, high-achieving school.
In October, Mr. Roosevelt proposed closing the 92-year-old building at the end of the school year, saying the district couldn't afford to address widespread asbestos and other maintenance problems.
Some school supporters had suggested that the district renovate the building with students inside or that only a partial renovation would be necessary.
"Let me be as clear as we can be. All of our experts are 100 percent opposed to that course of action," Mr. Roosevelt said last night.
The superintendent long has maintained that the building could not be renovated with students inside. The board already has voted to move students out of the building at least for the 2008-09 school year.
Mr. Roosevelt said he would explore possible uses for the building outside of schooling. He proposed reassigning the students to other buildings:
Students in the international studies/International Baccalaureate magnet would go to a new IB school for grades six through 12 at the Reizenstein building in Shadyside.
He said Schenley's feeder-pattern students, who are in a general academic program, would go to a new university partnership school for grades six through 12 at the Milliones building in the Hill District.
Parents, students and other Schenley supporters immediately assailed the plan, claiming the maintenance problems weren't as severe or costly as Mr. Roosevelt portrayed them. The critics also questioned the plan for new schools, saying there was little evidence to show a 6-12 school design was effective.
But the loudest laments centered on the potential loss of a flagship school, a place renowned for its academics, musicals and sports teams and for seamlessly blending students of different racial, economic and academic groups.
Critics protested outside school district offices in Oakland and lambasted the plan at the board's monthly public hearings.
Mr. Roosevelt later modified his proposal, suggesting that the Schenley building be closed at the end of the school year and its remaining students -- the current ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders -- stay together at the Reizenstein building until their classes graduate.
Under that scenario, Pittsburgh Frick 6-8 in Oakland would become the nucleus of the new IB school and add ninth grade at its building in 2008-09. The school eventually would move to Reizenstein or another building.
Mr. Roosevelt also proposed a scaled-down start to the university partnership school. Instead of multiple grades during its first year, he said, he wanted to open the school with about 150 ninth-graders culled from Hill District elementary schools.
But parents and others remained critical.
In February, Mr. Roosevelt asked for additional time to study Schenley. The board directed him to make his recommendations at May's education committee meeting.
Board member Heather Arnet last night asked whether the board has to vote on Schenley's closing at the June legislative meeting as planned. Solicitor Ira Weiss said the board could vote whenever it wishes.