Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Palace

The Mt. Lebanon School Board seems determined to spend as much as it possibly can on a new or renovated high school - without putting the question of reasonable cost to the voters of the community. That is the Board's prerogative; some would even say that making calls like these is the Board's duty.

Chris Schultz, formerly of Mt. Lebanon and now living in the Golden Triangle area of North Carolina, pointed out to me today that price tag for Mt. Lebanon's high school renovation puts the structure in the same nine-figure ballpark as Heinz Field ($280 million), PNC Park ($216 million), and the new Consol Energy Center ($315 million). There are some important differences. The construction costs for each of those structures are offset considerably by government subsidies, tax breaks, and naming rights -- not to mention the fact that team operations are funded substantially by revenues from TV contracts. Note to School Board: Explore naming rights, and not just for the building as a whole. Sell the rights to the gym, to the theater (to each of the theaters!), to the rifle range, to the library, to the cafeteria. Put ad space in the stadium. Consider TV rights for Lebo sports. I can even recommend a great local lawyer who will help out the District at a reasonable rate (and it's not me).

Seriously, Chris also pointed out that a new school down in the Carrboro area (near Chapel Hill) is being built for $34 million -- and it's certified LEED Silver to boot. Materials and labor costs may be lower in North Carolina than in Mt. Lebanon, but more important, Carrboro's school comes in at 148,000 square feet, supporting a capacity of 1,200 students. The Mt. Lebanon project is budgeted for 440,000 square feet (someone will correct me quickly if that's mistaken), supporting a capacity of (in the vicinity of) 2,000 students. I did a quick and dirty tour of high school building projects underway elsewhere in the US, and $100 mm to $125 mm estimates for complete renos of large schools are not uncommon.

In other words, the price tag as price tag isn't really the question. It never has been. The question is what the money buys. If the community spends $110 million on a new school, is that money going to impact the quality of the educational program more than spending less to renovate the current facilities and/or to invest in the quality of teaching and the curriculum would impact it? That's my question. (Remember, I never reject the assumption that the current facility has serious problems and that something substantial needs to be done.) The answer to that question is not "it's self-evident." The answer to that question is not "we have to have the best of everything for our children." The answer to that question is not "if we don't build a new school, everyone will buy houses in Bethel Park, Upper St. Clair, and Peters Township." The answer to that question is not "I moved here believing that there would be great schools, and I demand great schools!" The answer to that question is not Mt. Lebanon's history or tradition or board scores or its leadership position in PA public education.

In an earlier thread on this blog, there was a lively debate about data that supports the proposition that synchronizing the Washington Road stoplights represents good public policy. I don't think we ever saw that data, though certainly someone must have studied the question. Certainly someone must have studied the question that I've asked: How does spending on facilities impact educational quality? There must be data. I'm still waiting for an answer.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

How does spending on facilities impact educational quality?Mike, you raise an important question for taxpayers and policymakers, not just in Mt. Lebanon but around the country. Consequently, many researchers have studied it. I wrote about a 2006 survey of that research in my comment on your post about "The Sobering Reality of the Mt. Lebanon High School Renovation".

In short, the most-reliable studies show that school facilities have little, if any, effect on student achievement. (Many early studies did claim some relationship, but later research has largely shown those claims to be the result of flaws in the studies, which failed to account for likely confounding factors.) A 2005 study by Picus et al., for example, finds that "there is essentially no relationship between the quality of school facilities and student performance when other factors known to impact student performance are accounted for."

It seems wasteful, then, to spend top dollar for gains that do not exist or, if they do, are small. "[P]olicymakers should be aware," advise the Picus-study researchers, "that investments in facilities by themselves are unlikely to improve student learning."

Maybe, then, our students would be better off we spent a little less on a new high school and a little more on things that actually improve student achievement.

May 12, 2009 2:21 PM  
Anonymous John Ewing said...

The District and individual school No Child Left Behind Report Cards are revealing from an educational perspective, Mike.

Here are the links to the individual school No Child Left Behind Report Cards where problems are revealed along with a comment about what problem each school has.

No director has addressed any of this; we seem to be designing our high school around athletics and forgetting that an investment the size of the high school should bring upgraded staff and teaching too. If we had a fundraising arm to solicit funding for this kind of money the contributors would demand better teacher accountability. Your point that we as residents should do this too is a very good idea.

Here are the troubled schools. Note: Foster is on the list even though we have three directors from that school and so is Lincoln where we have one director.

Over all School District NCLB Report Card –

I would not want to attend school in Mt. Lebanon if my second language was English.

High School

I would not want to attend the High School if I had an IEP and/or was poor and wanted to learn to read and do math.

Students with an IEP met target using a Confidence Interval for Math and Reading. The Confidence Interval is a FUDGE FACTOR to get us over weak State standards (56% PROFICIENT and ABOVE in MATH AND 63% PROFICIENT and ABOVE in READING). The Strategic Plan Target is 95% Proficient and above in all areas. This poor performance suggests a partial re-staffing is needed in the high school and/or Central Administration.

Note: Confidence intervals take into account the fact that the students tested in any particular year might not be representative of students in that school across the years. Confidence intervals control variation across years to account for schools or subgroups that come very close to achieving their annual thresholds, thus meeting their specific Annual Yearly Progress Targets. The United States Department of Education approved a 95% Confidence Interval (C.I.) in Pennsylvania for AYP performance. Mt Lebanon fell below State standards in the high school.


Jefferson Middle School

I would not want to attend Jefferson Middle School if I had an IEP and wanted to learn to read and do math.

I would not want to attend Jefferson Middle School if my second language was English if I wanted to learn to read and do math.

I would not want to attend Jefferson Middle School if I were poor and want to learn to read.

Students with an IEP met target using Confidence Interval for Math and Reading. The FUDGE FACTOR lifted Jefferson Middle School above State Targets.


Mellon Middle School

I would not want to attend Mellon Middle School if I had an IEP and wanted to learn Math

Students with an IEP met target using Confidence Interval for Math. The FUDGE FACTOR lifted Mellon Middle School above weak State Targets.


Foster Elementary School

Reading scores are too low for students with IEPs. The FUDGE FACTOR DIDN’T HELP Foster Elementary School to go above State Targets.

Hoover Elementary School

Reading and Math scores are too low
The FUDGE FACTOR DIDN’T HELP Hoover Elementary School to score above State Targets.

Lincoln Elementary School

I would want to go to this school if I had an IEP but not if I was poor and wanted to learn to read.
The FUDGE FACTOR DIDN’T HELP Lincoln Elementary School to score above State Targets.

Teacher accountibility should be driving the process instead of athletics.

May 12, 2009 5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I urge everyone to read James Fraasch's blog today on the HS project. SOme very interesting observations and numbers.
Your Carrboro HS project example verifies James' construction numbers. Carrboro's new $38 million HS breaks down to $229.73/sq. ft. Very close to Bethel Park's number and the suggested cost from RSMeans, PA Dept. of Ed. and American School & University magazines suggested cost per sq. ft.
So why are our numbers so out of whack???
Dean Spahr

May 15, 2009 1:53 PM  

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