Analysis: A painful conclusion on closing city's Schenley High School

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Pittsburgh Schenley High School, which long has represented all that's good about urban education, is being done in by all that's wrong with it.

That was the message Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt sent Monday night in recommending that the venerable Schenley building be closed in June.

He said Schenley's maintenance problems -- $76.2 million worth, Mr. Roosevelt said -- couldn't come at a worse time.

District revenues are flat. Enrollment continues to fall. Costs of employee health care and charter schools are up sharply.

The district's debt already tops $475.6 million. Debt payments this year will exceed $58 million, representing 11 percent of the general fund budget.

Mr. Roosevelt said Schenley renovations would weaken the district's bond rating and require $7 million in debt payments annually for 20 years.

During the school board's Education Committee meeting Monday, he was questioned about whether he'd asked local foundations for the money.

"It's a hard case to make," he replied, saying philanthropies have little incentive to support the renovation of the Schenley building when other city high schools have hundreds of empty seats.

Contributing to the financial crunch, he said, was a spate of spending before he joined the district nearly three years ago.

Operating budgets increased from $409 million in 1999 to $530 million in 2005, even though the district was losing students.

The district's debt increased from $247.2 million to $442.9 million during the same span. Mr. Roosevelt on Monday questioned the value of certain projects during that period, including improvements to Pittsburgh Westinghouse High School, which has an enrollment of 338 students and space for 1,000.

While the district struggles with its finances, it faces intense pressure to improve academics -- something that can take money.

The district has missed federal achievement benchmarks for six years in a row. At Pittsburgh Rooney 6-8 on the North Side, for example, only about 23 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in math and reading last year.

"We are failing to meet the needs of far too many of our students," Mr. Roosevelt said Monday -- words designed to reframe the discussion.

Mr. Roosevelt considers Schenley a painful but necessary casualty. He prefers to spend the district's resources on districtwide academic initiatives, such as giving students more rigorous schools and a wider range of school options.

Carey Harris, executive director of the Downtown education group A+ Schools, said she was saddened by Mr. Roosevelt's recommendation.

"I think the fiscal arguments are compelling," she said. "But I think they're compelling if we look at it in isolation. I really think we need a full high school reform plan."

Because the district is in the early stages of overhauling its high schools, parents and some board members say, it can't know what to do with the buildings now. Better, they say, to decide the Schenley building's fate when other parts of the high school improvement plan come to light.

But wait how long?

In fall 2005, Mr. Roosevelt proposed closing Schenley as part of a comprehensive school-closing plan, only to withdraw the recommendation for additional study. The only change 21/2 years later: higher renovation costs.

Navigating the Schenley issue arguably has been one of the greatest tests of Mr. Roosevelt's leadership.

It's also a test of the school board's vision and the public's patience with upheaval. The district is well down the road toward Mr. Roosevelt's vision of reform, but there are no conclusive results.

Has uncertainty about Mr. Roosevelt's initiatives, from school closings to new programs, crystallized around Schenley?

"I think it could be tempting to come to that conclusion," Ms. Harris said.

In a district of sub-par schools, Schenley supporters are loathe to let go of a good one. Schenley's celebration of diversity, aesthetic charm, location in vibrant Oakland, winning sports teams and hit musicals compound the grief.

Schenley supporters worry about whether they'll like the new schools Mr. Roosevelt has proposed to replace Schenley, whether they'll be as high-achieving as Schenley, whether they'll promote racial balance or segregation, and whether he'll be around to be held accountable for the results.

There's also an issue of trust.

Schenley supporters fear the district intends to sell the building for use by a university or hospital; district officials said they've had no such discussions but would like to see the building reused in some fashion.

The supporters also have questioned the accuracy of renovation requirements and estimates, even suggesting, Mr. Roosevelt said, that district officials and their architects are "fibbing" or engaged in a "great charade."

Before Monday's meeting, Mr. Roosevelt quietly brought in another firm to evaluate Schenley's condition.

MacLachlan, Cornelius & Filoni, the corporate offspring of Schenley's original architect, provided the $76.2 million renovation estimate Mr. Roosevelt gave the school board. That was $11.8 million higher than the previous number.

But the latest report won't put the debate to rest, either.

Mr. Roosevelt has asked the board to vote on Schenley's closing next month, but it's unclear whether that will happen. Thomas Sumpter, Education Committee chairman, assured board members Monday that they'll have other opportunities to discuss Schenley.

Joe Smydo can be reached at or 412-263-1548.


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