Pittsburgh school district spent $23 million on now-closed buildings
The former Pittsburgh Reizenstein Middle School was once so crowded that large closets had to be turned into classrooms and some students were housed in an annex.
Now the Shadyside school, which was opened in 1975, is being torn down to make way for an expanded Bakery Square, purchased for $5.4 million -- enough to cover the outstanding debt but less than the $6.27 million the district had spent on it since 2007.
The school symbolizes the millions of dollars expended on schools no longer open as Pittsburgh Public Schools has struggled to decide which schools to keep open or reopen, which to close and which to renovate in the face of declining enrollment, increased charter school choices and deficit budgets.
Since 2004, the district has spent more than $23 million on capital improvements in 20 buildings that no longer house students.
"I think we need to remind ourselves that a school is open until it's closed," said school superintendent Linda Lane, who has pared capital spending significantly since becoming superintendent in January 2011.
"Schools are a big investment. ... You take care of your assets; you just don't let them deteriorate and fall apart because you may not be using them forever," she said.
In the future, she said, the district needs to "pay attention to what we think the long-term use of that building might be" without making a closing a self-fulfilling prophecy because of neglect.
Noting staff members work hard to make sure the schools are clean and in good repair, she said, "I think the condition of schools is a message the community sends to their kids. ... There is no school in the city that has the stereotypical, uncared for look."
School board President Shar-ene Shealey said the amount spent on now-closed schools is "regretful, but hindsight is 20/20. I have no intention of pointing fingers at the board at that time. They were basing their decisions off the information they had at the time."
Noting the district's annual capital budget is significantly smaller now, she said, "We're hopefully heading in a different direction."
Capital budgets get haircuts
In addition to money spent on now unused buildings, the district expended more than $79 million since 2004 to change the use of, expand grades in or build "equity additions" to schools that are still housing students.
The district did this by borrowing money at a pace that may not be seen again, at least for some years.
For at least the period from 2004 through 2009, the school board approved capital budgets calling for spending from nearly $40.6 million to nearly $54.4 million each year.
In 2010, the number dropped to $30 million, but for 2011 the district was poised to spend $60.35 million.
But in March 2011, just a few months after becoming superintendent, Ms. Lane recommended pulling the plug.
"The nick of time would have been even sooner for me," she said in a recent interview.
With the district facing significant cuts in state and federal funding, Ms. Lane proposed trimming the capital budget in 2011 by 75 percent to about $15 million, which was to save $3.6 million in debt service in 2012 alone.
The board agreed and followed the same pattern for 2012 and 2013, approving just $13.4 million and $14.1 million in capital budgets, respectively, a challenge in a district where the average building is 78 years old.
"I'm grateful to the board for saying this is a good time to stop and think if this really makes sense for us right now," Ms. Lane said.
As a result of past borrowing, the district's $521.8 million budget this year includes $56.4 million in debt service. At the end of 2012, the district's debt obligation included nearly $418 million in outstanding principal and about $166 million in outstanding interest.
Significant sums of capital money were spent to carry out the "Right-Sizing Plan," which resulted in 22 school closings and other changes in 2006, and the Excel.9-12 plan, which was introduced in 2007 to create or reconfigure some high schools.
Both plans started under superintendent Mark Roosevelt, who served from 2005 through 2010.
The capital costs spent on closed schools include the $6.27 million to get Reizenstein ready to receive students from the former Schenley High and Frick Middle schools.
By the time seven schools were closed at the end of the 2011-12, preparations to open a new K-8 school in the former Langley High School in Sheraden were more modest.
At Langley, about $12,000 was spent to replace sections of carpet. In one area, drinking fountains were lowered. Books, desks and materials were shipped in from other schools. Work was done by in-house staff without construction contracts.
Some of the changes made in the school configurations in recent years have proven attractive to students, such as the move of Rogers CAPA 6-8 from Garfield to Downtown to join the high school program in fall 2009.
For this fall, CAPA 6-12 had 495 applications for 195 spots.
To move Rogers, the district spent nearly $8.7 million, part of the nearly $11.7 million spent on the Downtown CAPA location from 2004 through 2012.
But not all of the changes in recent years have been popular.
The 2006 Right-Sizing Plan included the creation of eight accelerated learning academies, known as ALAs, which had a longer school day and year in an effort to boost achievement.
None of the schools operate as ALAs anymore. Four are closed, but one of them, Rooney 6-8 in Brighton Heights -- which was closed in 2010 after $1.3 million was spent from 2004 through 2009 -- is scheduled to reopen this fall, paired with Pittsburgh Morrow PreK-6 in Brighton Heights, which is phasing in grades 7 and 8.
The three other closed ALA buildings -- on which nearly $5.4 million was spent before closing in 2012 -- are Fort Pitt PreK-5 in Garfield, $3.2 million from 2004 through 2008; Northview PreK-8 on the North Side, $777,662 from 2004 through 2009; and Murray K-8 in Mount Oliver, $216,096 from 2005 through 2009.
In addition, when Northview was closed, $1.17 million in design, planning and pre-construction professional services already had been spent on a planned $14 million renovation, among the projects Ms. Lane pulled in 2011.
The Right-Sizing Plan also included the creation of three "innovative pairings" which used two buildings to make a K-8 school, in fall 2006.
All three pairings were gone by 2011 or 2012, resulting in three empty school buildings -- Belmar in Homewood, Schaeffer in Crafton Heights and Sheraden -- on which a total of more than $1.8 million was spent, $1.6 million of that on Belmar.
Another school building that was part of the pairings, Crescent in Homewood, on which $1.6 million was spent in 2006 and 2007, was closed as an intermediate building for Faison in Homewood in 2011 but now is used as an early childhood center. Faison, which opened in a new building in 2004, returned to being a K-5.
Equity among schools
In some cases, spending on schools that ended up closed slowed in the years preceding the closing.
For example, Vann in the Hill District, which was designated in 2006 to grow from a K-5 to a K-8 and was closed in 2010, had no major projects after 2006, although $1.4 million was spent from 2004 through 2006.
The Vann work included classroom renovations but plans for a new gym, listed as a way to provide equity for the school in the 2006 Right-Sizing Plan, were canceled.
Vann was one of five schools slated for major construction projects to provide equity in quality of facilities in the 2006 Right-Sizing Plan.
Three of them were completed, including Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill, which began adding middle school grades in 2004-05, received a $12.8 million addition, completed in 2008. Its official fall enrollment this school year was 707, the highest enrollment of any K-5 or K-8 school in the district.
Receiving additions for both equity and alleviating overcrowding were Sterrett 6-8 in Point Breeze, nearly $8.8 million, completed in 2008, and Concord K-5 in Carrick, nearly $18.7 million, completed in 2011.
A planned equity construction for a gym at McKelvy in the Hill District was canceled after $360,917 was spent in design fees.
As for Reizenstein, it was closed as a middle school in 2006 with about 583 students -- about a third of its 1977-78 enrollment.
It was used as a professional development center until it became the temporary home for Schenley High in 2008 when the Oakland school was closed and for Pittsburgh Obama 6-12, an international studies magnet school, which was phased in beginning in 2009.
The Obama students previously would have gone to Schenley or to the former Frick Middle School for international studies.
The $6.27 million spent to get Reizenstein ready for its new use, included three science labs, three art rooms, three music rooms, flooring, lockers, ceilings, lighting and early childhood classrooms.
The Schenley use of Reizenstein was intended only until those who were entering Schenley in grades 10, 11 and 12 in 2008 graduated. The last Schenley class left in 2011.
As a result of a 2010 board vote, the use of Obama proved temporary as well when Obama students in 2012 moved from Reizenstein to the Peabody building in East Liberty, which had been closed as a high school in 2011.
Don't short transition schools
Ms. Lane, who joined the district as deputy superintendent in 2007, said she didn't make the recommendation about Reizenstein capital spending but said the thinking was that students in a "transition building" shouldn't get "educationally short-changed."
At Peabody, the district had already spent $3.25 million in capital projects in 2008, including robotics technology, electrical service, chiller room drainage and stairwell fire doors.
The robotics technology alone -- approved by the board in 2008 -- cost $2.6 million. About half of the equipment is in storage; the rest has been moved to Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy 6-12.
To get Peabody ready for students from Reizenstein, the district spent $844,824 in 2012, including capital, maintenance and repair work such as electrical improvements, early childhood classrooms, painting, floor repairs and other maintenance work. Lockers were salvaged from Reizenstein.
The district figures that Peabody has $3.4 million in capital needs through 2018, about half of which is window replacement budgeted for this year.
The old Schenley building itself also had received replacement windows in 2004 -- at a cost of nearly $1.5 million.
Some blame the replacement windows for keeping moisture in the building and leading to the deterioration of the building's asbestos. Ultimately, Mr. Roosevelt argued that problem, ventilation and other repairs at Schenley would be too costly.
The district has received four bids for the Schenley building, with a review panel earlier this month recommending a $5.2 million bid to turn Schenley into apartments. The board retains the right to reject any and all bids and is scheduled to vote Wednesday.
In November 2011, the board voted to sell Reizenstein to Walnut Capital and RCG Longview. Demolition began last month.
Meanwhile, students who would have enrolled at Schenley were assigned, as grades were phased in beginning in 2008, to the new Milliones 6-12, known as University Prep, in the Hill District, a former middle school.
The Milliones transformation cost $15.58 million, including classroom renovations, corridors, science labs, computer rooms, new lighting, ceilings, an elevator, electrical power/data upgrades and wireless system.
Another $2.69 million has been spent since Milliones reopened, including a multimedia lab, waterline replacement, and gym and pool ventilation.
The Frick building -- which once housed the middle school students in the international studies program who went to the Reizenstein building and now are at Peabody -- is being used for a new magnet school, the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy 6-12, which opened in 2009.
Known as Sci-Tech, the new school received nearly $12.98 million in renovations, including classrooms, science labs, electrical power, cafeteria and flooring. Another $1.1 million has been spent since it opened.
Like CAPA, Sci-Tech also is popular. The school accepted 122 of 404 applicants for this fall.
"We're going to have to have schools parents want to send their children to," said Ms. Lane.
No plans for additional school closings have been made.
With the district embarking on a new "envisioning process," Ms. Lane said, "everything is on the table, including any school closures, but that's going to be a long community conversation."
First Published February 24, 2013 12:00 am