City schools to consider purchase of August Wilson Center for CAPA expansion

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The August Wilson Center for African American Culture isn't officially up for sale, but the conservator of the foreclosed facility is open to hearing Pittsburgh school director Mark Brentley's ideas about the district acquiring the center for arts education and performances.

On Wednesday, the board voted, 8-1, in favor of Mr. Brentley's resolution for Pittsburgh Public Schools to form an ad hoc committee to brainstorm about the possibility of acquiring the Downtown center. The board authorized superintendent Linda Lane and key staff members to provide technical support to the ad hoc committee and for the committee to report back to the board within 30 days.

Board member Sherry Hazuda was the lone vote against the idea.

In an interview Thursday Mr. Brentley said he believes the Wilson center would be a perfect location for the expansion of Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, the city's performing arts middle and high school. He said he has been thinking for the past month of a way to save the Wilson center and keep the work and mission of its namesake, author August Wilson, alive in Pittsburgh.

He envisions the center becoming an extension of CAPA 6-12, allowing more students to attend, including some from outside of Pittsburgh who would pay tuition, thus generating revenue. Mr. Brentley also would like to see the 450-seat auditorium leased to performing artists looking for venues smaller than the Consol Energy Center and other larger halls in the area, and to provide space for local artists to offer free lessons to Pittsburgh students whose families cannot afford private arts and music lessons.

And, he'd like to see the center continue to operate with its original mission in a portion of the space.

"That board might be willing to partner with us. We would love that," Mr. Brentley said.

Dollar Bank filed to foreclose on the facility in September after it defaulted on its $7 million mortgage, and last month former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Judith K. Fitzgerald was named as a conservator for the center until at least Feb. 3. Her appointment is aimed at bringing the property back from its financial devastation.

After hearing of Mr. Brentley's proposal on Thursday, Judge Fitzgerald said she would be "delighted" to hear from the district about the plan.

"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for both the center and for CAPA. I would like to get together and talk," she said.

As conservator, Judge Fitzgerald has broad powers to make decisions regarding the center, including those involving shows and other bookings as well as personnel, without interference from the board or managers.

She said she is not aware of anything that would prohibit the building from being sold but stressed that "the terms are going to have to be negotiated." She said she is willing to talk to anyone who wants to "make appropriate use" of the facility while continuing its mission as a cultural center.

"This could be a good fit for CAPA and the center," she said.

Stanley Levine, attorney for the center, said that if Judge Fitzgerald finds a proposal to her liking for the sale of building she could present it to Common Pleas Court for consideration.

He added that the center's board likely would oppose any sale that did not preserve the building's mission.

Ms. Lane said the district staff started to research the feasibility of Mr. Brentley's proposal on Thursday. That research will include a physical review of the center and estimates on how much money it would take to renovate it for classroom space. She said the district had previously discussed expanding CAPA when buildings nearby became available, but because the program has a higher per-pupil cost than other high schools in the district, officials decided against it.

Ms. Lane said she did not know how much higher the CAPA per-pupil costs are but that the program was designed to spend more on each student because in addition to the regular school staff, the faculty includes adjunct teachers who are artists. She said it was unlikely the district could raise revenue through tuition students because there are always more Pittsburgh students who want to enroll in the 6-8 and 9-12 programs at CAPA.

There are 300 applications for the 120 openings in the sixth grade for next school year and 200 applications for the 95 spaces available in grades 9-11.

Ms. Lane said the only way to guarantee tuition students would be to set aside a certain number of seats for students from outside of the district, but that could mean cutting out Pittsburgh students.

As a result of the financial turmoil, the Allegheny Regional Asset District has halted funding to the center, as have local foundations.

Mary Niederberger: or 412-263-1590. Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

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