Pittsburgh school board member Theresa Colaizzi last night threw another wrinkle into the debate over Pittsburgh Schenley High School by proposing that voters decide whether to renovate the Oakland building.
Ms. Colaizzi said a referendum could be placed on the ballot to ask voters whether the Pittsburgh Public Schools should borrow nearly $80 million to renovate a building that's historic and beloved, but plagued by asbestos and other maintenance problems.
She made the suggestion at the board's agenda review, one week before a scheduled vote on Superintendent Mark Roosevelt's proposal to shutter the building June 30.
Her proposal comes as an alliance of neighborhood and civil rights groups tries to block Mr. Roosevelt's proposal and as City Council weighs a nonbinding resolution urging the school board to tread carefully with one of the city's most successful, popular schools.
Councilwomen Darlene Harris and Tonya Payne offered a resolution to that effect yesterday, but it came up one vote short. The issue could be raised again when council meets next week.
Councilman William Peduto last week suggested selling the Reizenstein school property in Shadyside, saying sale proceeds and taxes from new residential development on the site could help fund Schenley's overhaul.
Mr. Roosevelt quickly called the plan unworkable, and he leveled more criticism on Mr. Peduto last night, saying the councilman's suggestion "wasn't an honest proposal" and was based "on assumptions he knew to be false."
Ms. Colaizzi also lashed out at council, which has no legal authority over school affairs, for "putting their nose where it doesn't belong."
She said council has no business commenting on school renovations and finances when the Legislature about four years ago diverted millions of dollars in school taxes for a city bailout package.
In proposing the referendum, Ms. Colaizzi may be betting that Schenley supporters constitute a vocal minority and that most taxpayers wouldn't want to go deeply into debt to save one building. But even wording of the referendum could be a thorny issue.
Schenley supporters contend that the $76.2 million renovation estimate that Mr. Roosevelt has been quoting since May 19 represents a gutting of the building. They contend a scaled-down project could be accomplished for less than $40 million, with asbestos removal costing about $10.5 million.
School board member Randall Taylor said the referendum also should ask whether voters want to spend millions of dollars to renovate other buildings in which Mr. Roosevelt would locate new high schools. Schenley supporters claim those costs could equal the cost of repairing Schenley.
Mr. Roosevelt expressed frustration with Schenley supporters who claim that he hasn't tried hard enough to save the school, saying such complaints "seem to be the cost of doing business in Pittsburgh."
He said he nearly decided to propose closing the building last winter -- in the middle of the school year -- after architects warned him of deteriorating conditions. He decided to keep the building open for the rest of the term, but district Solicitor Ira Weiss later sent him a memo warning of the growing legal liability for keeping students in the building.
The board will hold a workshop on high school renewal Monday, a meeting certain to include more discussion of Schenley.
Board member Heather Arnet said she'll press the administration for details about a five-year plan for overhauling high schools, something demanded by Schenley supporters who claim Mr. Roosevelt is taking a piecemeal approach to high school improvement.
Staff writer Rich Lord contributed. Joe Smydo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1548.