Schenley supporters push to save school

Speakers say a new plan must come before decisions to close

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Pittsburgh Schenley High School supporters last tried to shift the momentum in the debate over the building's future, with leaders of the city Democratic Committee, the Pittsburgh NAACP and the Black Political Empowerment Project calling for additional efforts to save it.

School supporters held a news conference outside Pittsburgh Public Schools offices in Oakland, then went inside for the school board's monthly public hearing. The vast majority of 88 registered speakers planned to testify about Schenley or other components of Superintendent Mark Roosevelt's efforts to overhaul city high schools.

"Vote no! Vote no! Vote no!" Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, or B-PEP, told board members, referring to the possibility of a June 25 vote on Schenley's proposed closing.

Mr. Stevens was among the speakers who said it would be unwise to close Schenley until Mr. Roosevelt unveiled a plan for improving all 10 district high schools. Absent such a plan, he said, how can the board make an intelligent decision?

School supporters, many of whom also plan to attend City Council's hearing on Schenley at 6 p.m. today, said Mr. Roosevelt has been able to frame the Schenley debate with exaggerated estimates for renovating the 92-year-old Oakland landmark.

They said they're trying to re-frame the discussion by focusing on how much the school district stands to lose -- in reputation, academic quality and students who withdraw from the school district -- if officials walk away from it.

Supporters said last night's turnout comprised a cross-section of racial, neighborhood and civic groups, hinting at the breadth of pressure they intend to bring to bear on board members.

Leslie Horne, a member of the NAACP Education Committee, said the reasons to save Schenley include community support for the school, successful academic programs and a diverse student population, including students learning English as a second language.

"What is the hurry?" she said of Mr. Roosevelt's proposal to close the building this month. "Vote to table the permanent closing of Schenley until all options are considered."

Democratic Committee Chairwoman Barbara Ernsberger said a group of about 80 voted overwhelmingly at a May 21 meeting to support efforts to save Schenley.

Mr. Roosevelt repeatedly has proposed closing the school, saying the district cannot afford $76.2 million in renovations, including asbestos remediation.

But speakers last night repeated their assertion that a Schenley renovation could be done for less. They questioned his plans to reassign students to new schools and his motivation for wanting to close Schenley, again suggesting that the cash-strapped district will try to sell the building.

Shadyside resident Annette Werner said MacLachlan, Cornelius & Filoni Inc., the architectural firm that provided the $76.2 million estimate, suggested the district save $15 million by renovating only three of the school's four floors.

The $76.2 million estimate represents an unnecessary gutting of the building -- "great if you can afford it," Oakland resident Nick Lardas said, noting one architectural firm estimated that a scaled-down project would cost less than $40 million.

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


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