Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Fourth of July is Coming

The Fourth of July falls on Saturday this year, and if the weather holds as forecast, it should be a beautiful day and evening to share with friends and neighbors. I thought that I'd repost an excerpt from my "Hidden Mt. Lebanon" series from a couple of years ago. Look for me Saturday evening at Mt. Lebanon High School.

I'll start with a confession: The Fourth of July is my second favorite holiday -- Thanksgiving is #1 -- and it's one of the few that comes with a built-in excuse to celebrate publicly, with a lot of people that you don't necessarily know. As a child, I used to go to the Fourth of July parade in Redwood City. When our kids were young and we lived in Oakland, we would drive up to Piedmont on the Fourth and watch a perfectly silly parade. The highlight was the Lawn Chair Drill Team. When we moved to Mt. Lebanon, we arrived on July 1. Right away, we went looking for something similar.

We found it at the high school. Lebo has no parade on the Fourth, but we do have something that serves just as well as community glue: the fireworks show. Because Western PA is home to the Zambelli family, and probably for other reasons, lots of communities in the area have great fireworks on the Fourth. I don't know how Mt. Lebanon compares on that score, and where there is the promise of a great fireworks show, lots of people gather. So Mt. Lebanon may not be special on this score either (or on others -- another Hidden Mt. Lebanon chapter to come!). But I do know that if we're in town on the Fourth, we're at the high school in the evening, along with thousands of other people.

The fireworks are terrific (and loud!), but there's also a palpable and visible sense of community all around you. We walk to the show, accompanied by dozens of neighbors. We spread out on lawn chairs and blankets and beds of pickup trucks. The party spreads up on to Washington Road and down below the main parking lot; there are satellites at Markham and probably other places. Unlike high school football games, where some people in the stands want to watch the game while others simultaneously use the evening for socializing, at the fireworks show the action is neatly divided into "before" and "during." "During," you have no choice but to watch and/or listen to the action in the sky. "Before," however, is all strolling and chatting and playing with the kids and watching them play. This is Mt. Lebanon at its least self-conscious and most comfortable, neighbors and friends enjoying each others' company.
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Movie Night in Mt. Lebanon

The Denis Theatre may or may not come back, but classic film aficionados are taking advantage of the location and the summer weather nonetheless. Over at Denis Theatre - Act 2, Gwyn Cready reports on the first "Last Saturday" movie night last Friday evening. "Bringing Up Baby," the classic Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn/Baby screwball comedy, was on the menu, and Gwyn reports that a great time was had by all.

Future "Last Saturday" screenings include "My Bread, My Sweet" on July 25, and "Mad, Hot Ballroom" on August 29. Something for everyone, I guess (I'll be traveling and can't make the shows, so never mind me), but if I had my druthers, I'd show nothing but Howard Hawks and George Cukor films, with "Casablanca" on tap in a regular rotation.
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Trash Day in Mt. Lebanon

Most people in Mt. Lebanon know that you can get good, lightly used stuff by keeping an eye on what neighbors leave out with their garbage. Some of us are "sellers" in this market; putting lightly used things out with the sidewalk and intending that it will get picked up before the garbage collectors come around. Some of us are "buyers," picking out the good stuff and taking it home.

Some people call this "sidewalk shopping," and Mt. Lebanon has no monopoly on the practice [the link takes you to a Boing Boing post about the Japanese] - or on publicizing the fact that it goes on. I'm posting today because a nearby blog posted some nice photos of good stuff that was picked up at "sidewalk sales" around the Municipality recently. On the one hand, I'm startled by what appears to be the waste associated with "throwing out" perfectly good stuff. On the other hand, there is a weird efficiency at work. On trash day, Mt. Lebanon's sidewalks and parking strips are a kind of instant thrift shop, where everything is free for the taking.
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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Nothing But Bonds

Bill Matthews put together an analysis of the recent "paving and sidewalk bonds," of Mt. Lebanon's debt strategy, including an assessment of the impact of "wrapping" bonds, that he shared with the Commission before the recent vote to authorize a new bond issue. [I've corrected this part of the post in light of Bill's clarification in the comments.]

Bill sent a copy to me, and I've posted them here for everyone to read.

[A note to everyone who may have materials to share via the blog: You can post them on the Internet yourself, for free, at http://www.scribd.com/.]
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Still More With the Bonds

My anonymous Mt. Lebanon-native / current Wall Street banker commenter sent in another comment that I can't post (which s/he knows, but s/he wanted to communicate with me anyway). But the comment is detailed enough on the subject of municipal debt financing that I want to summarize it very quickly - so that I can respond again. It's weird to have this kind of sort-of-one-sided "conversation" with an anonymous correspondent, especially on a blog that has a strong "no anonymity" comment policy, but the blogosphere is weird sometimes, and this is an important topic. To be clear, I'm using the anonymous comment only as a basis to float and respond to some important substantive arguments.

The comment makes few key points:

(1) Debt financing for municipal projects is often a good idea, because (i) it allocates the cost of improvements to the full range of taxpayers who will benefit from them and (ii) it creates a stable pool of resources to manage improvements, rather than leaving improvements to the vagaries of annual tax collections. (ii) is a valid point, and I said so in my earlier post, so we agree on that. In this case, however, there's no evidence that the Mt. Lebanon Commission is motivated by that argument. (i) is true in cases where we're talking about a true capital improvement, rather than something that's an operating expense, but it isn't related to (ii), that is, it can be sensible to create a debt-financed budget pool that isn't linked to the life of particular assets. Whether we're talking about version (i) or version (ii) of this argument depends, therefore, on a classification question. It wouldn't be smart to finance repairs to fire trucks with debt, but it might be smart to create a financing pool. It would be stupid to build a bridge with anything other than debt, and it would be smart to match that debt to the life of the bridge. Mt. Lebanon is using debt financing to financing street repaving and sidewalk repairs. Are these more like fire engine maintenance, or more like building a bridge? My answer is below.

(2) Debt financing can always be refinanced down the road (the bonds can be called, assuming that a call option is written into the bonds), and often is. That's true again, but of course you don't know up front whether market conditions will make it smart to exercise the option (that's what makes it an option). If rates go down, then call; if rates don't, then don't call. Right now, it strikes me that history is a particularly poor guide to what we expect in all debt markets, including muni bond markets. In other words, you might argue that the current 20-year-bonds are really 10-year-bonds with an option. But I suspect that markets are going to be much more unpredictable in the future than they have been in the past, which makes that recharacterization less plausible.

(3) Wrapping is an market-standard approach to municipal debt. The Street wraps bonds because clients want wrapping -- it's cheaper. This is a semi-persuasive defense of the banks, but it doesn't mean that wrapping is smart policy, and that's what the debate is all about. Of *course* local governments love to issue wrapped bonds -- that's because politicians can avoid having to deliver bad news (sorry! your taxes are going up while I'm in office!) to their constituents. Wrapping and call-options are "kick the problem can down the road" policies that permit local governments to avoid having to account to the voters for the true short-term costs of their decisions. [Update: My anonymous correspondent read this post and wrote again, disagreeing with my characterization of the politics of wrapped bonds. In his/her view, "wrapping" limits potential abuse of debt financing by politicans. I don't have time or energy to explore the details here, so I'll note the point and punt on whether she/he's right, or I'm right, or some of both.]

That's why forcing local governments to anticipate and plan for the cost of ordinary maintenance -- vehicles, buildings, roads, parks -- is so important, and and why it should be (in the ideal world that doesn't exist) comparatively easy. Bridges and trucks need to get replaced only once in a great while. Borrow for those, and spread the one-time cost over the life of the asset. Roads and sidewalks need to get repaired every year (obviously, the same road or sidewalk doesn't get repaired each year, but treat "roads" and "sidewalks" as assets, rather than as groups of assets (each road isn't an asset, in other words, for this purpose), and it's easier to see that "roads" get repaired every year. Trucks need to get repaired every year. So this goes into the budget. Again, per the above, it might be rational to borrow to create a pool to finance the budget - but if that's the case, the "life of the asset" rationale disappears.

With respect to the current paving/sidewalk bonds, there's no evidence that the Commission approached the decision in a way that reflects these kinds of judgments. That's what bothers me and a lot of people more than anything else: The sense, judging from publicly-available information, that the Commissioners are merely reacting, and reacting without consideration, to whatever information happens to be in front of them at any given moment in time.

Demand better.
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Friday, June 26, 2009

State Funding Formula Would Put Suburban Libraries In A Jam

Suburban libraries are scrambling to figure out how to make up lost money under a proposed formula that appears to address concerns expressed by those providing the dollars.

Suburban libraries wrangled over a formula for four years and approved the latest version this week by a 33-9 vote, with two abstentions. "It was designed so that there would be predictable funding from year to year," Jenkins said. "It was designed to be as simple as possible and as equitable as possible."

The old formula was based on population, economic distress, use of the library by residents and nonresidents, the number of hours the library is open and local funding. This formula, if RAD approves, would not consider library hours or local funding.

Jenkins noted 14 libraries that would lose money voted for the formula. South Park and Mt. Lebanon public libraries, however, voted against it. Cynthia Richey, director of Mt. Lebanon's library, said the formula doesn't accomplish the goal of helping distressed libraries.

Link: www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/pittsburgh/s_631161.html

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Still More on Wrongheaded Mt. Lebanon Paving Bonds

There is still more to say about the sale of bonds to finance street paving and sidewalk repairs in Mt. Lebanon.

In The Almanac, Bob Williams quotes Commissioner Dan Miller, who dissented from the decision to authorize the deal:

"Streets should be done every year. Sidewalks should be done every year. In December I voted against taking sidewalks out of the budget. Sidewalks should have been in the budget. But the majority decided to take sidewalks out of the budget. Now what the majority is doing, is taking a routine annual expense and putting it in a bond issue. So over 20 years instead of paying dollar to dollar, we are paying interest on the debt. At the end of the day, we are spending $3.7 million on a $2.1 million bond.

"By taking out sidewalks from the 2009 budget we were able to give you a tax break. Mt. Lebanon residents got an average $15 back. But now we are saying, we gave you that $15 back, we are going to actually take debt on that $15 that we gave you instead of doing the sidewalk program," Miller said.

Pay close attention to the implications of that quotation.

First: Not only is the bond issue designed to cover street repairs (which Mt. Lebanon has paid for with bond financing from time to time in recent years), it is also designed to cover sidewalk repairs. The residents of Mt. Lebanon reasonably expect that the Municipality has enough cash in the operating budget to keep sidewalks up to date. These aren't extraordinary or unexpected sidewalk renovation; this is upkeep. This is the sort of thing that citizens and taxpayers expect to be accounted for in the annual budget that is so helpfully distributed to everyone in MTL magazine. And we're borrowing money for this? Like we didn't know that this was coming?

Second: But we did know that it was coming. As Dan Miller points out, back in December a majority of the Commission (not including Dan) voted to take sidewalks out of the annual budget -- with the result that the majority of Commissioners were able to tout a trivial "tax reduction" with no reduction in services. Raja posted a summary of December events on his blog that is proud and enthusiastic about the cost savings.

The most cynical version of the story here -- a version that Dan doesn't indulge, but nothing stops me from speculating -- is that that the Commission was/is trying to hoodwink the citizens of Mt. Lebanon: Pay attention to the tax cut! Don't pay attention while I pick your pocket! Re-elect me!

The less cynical version of the story is that the Commissioners just weren't paying attention to the implications of what they were doing. They cut sidewalks, then (I suppose) heard from constituents who legitimately wanted sidewalks restored, and then were caught with their pants down -- an obligation to maintain sidewalks and no way to pay for it.

That explanation doesn't call for cynicism, but it does call for an accounting. These are smart, sensible, experienced men, at least some of whom campaigned for the job on the basis that they would bring rational fiscal policy to the Municipality. On his blog, Raja justifies the new bond issuance on the ground that Mt. Lebanon can amortize issuance costs over a larger bond, given that Mt. Lebanon has borrowing capacity available. But he doesn't explain or justify the need to borrow at all for sidewalks, which could have been paid for in the regular budget. He doesn't note that including the cost of sidewalk repairs in the bond will affect the amount of money available to repair streets. He doesn't explain or justify the need to borrow for street improvements generally, when Mt. Lebanon has done that at times in the past, but not regularly. There is a case to be made for borrowing here rather than spending out of annual revenues, but neither Raja nor the Commission has made it. (That case would be something like: "True capital projects require a consistent funding source that doesn't fluctuate with annual tax receipts.")

One clear implication of this sequence of events is that the Commission's decision to give us a tax "cut" back in December means fewer street repairs this year. So much for tax cuts coupled with consistent levels of service. We can't have our cake and eat it too, or, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Nor has Raja or the Commission justified or explained the "wrapping" of the bonds.

Lots of action; no explanation. And based on Dave Franklin's review of the process, a little bit of after-the-fact rationalizing, but remarkably little before-the-fact inquiry into the why or how of all of this. Is this how they run their own firms? Is this the future of Mt. Lebanon?

Demand explanations.
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More on Bizarre-O Bond Financing in Mt. Lebanon

[For background, read this post about the Mt. Lebanon Commission's decision to authorize a 20-year $2 million "wrapped" bond to pay for road and sidewalk repairs, and then read this post that critiques the Commission's decisionmaking process.]

We're going to do our best not to let this issue die a quick death. Not because the amount of money at stake is so great, either to the Municipality as a whole or to any individual taxpayer. In fact, the amounts of money are quite small -- which is part of the problem. Instead, it's a salient issue because of the signal that it sends about the quality of Municipal governance -- which is, in this case, atrocious -- and about municipal finance. This post follows up on that last point.

What's so bad about using bonds to pay for road repairs? What's so bad about using "wrapped" bonds, which back-load the nominal cost of paying off the bonds? And what's so bad about long-term bonds? I raise all of these questions because an anonymous commenter, someone who appears to have a position on Wall Street (or in the financial world, at least) wrote in to say, basically, that this deal is obviously the right thing to do. If you're buying an asset that lasts twenty years, then it's smart to amortize the cost over twenty years. The message "chill," you ignorant suburbanites.

Our blog rules prevent me from posting the comment (the commenter knew that), but the point is worth rebutting.

The question to start with is whether road and sidewalk repairs ordinarily should be classified as a capital expense (or investment) or an operating expense. If roads are ordinarily regarded as capital assets, then logic suggests that the Municipality should issue a new bond for every round of improvement. That strikes me as idiotic, but perhaps that's just my ignorance. It might make sense in the abstract to finance road improvements from a pool raised from a general obligation issue, but then the length of the bond and the amortization schedule aren't going to bear any logical relationship to the useful life of the roads, because different roads have different lives, and the money will be spent over a period of time. When I bought my house, I didn't get a mortgage with a term that was linked to the expected life of the house, or to the length of time that I expected to occupy it. I got a mortgage of a certain length and certain amount because the combination of products available in the market, likely refinancing needs and timing, payment amounts, and tax benefits made the most sense to me. How long I planned to own the house was a factor -- but hardly a determinative one. In other words, simple "matching" of bond life and asset life doesn't answer any question worth asking. The question is economics.

That brings us to "wrapping," or delaying re-payment of the better part of the bond obligation until the end of the bond. [Later, with a bit more time, I'll post a link to a thorough analysis by Bill Matthews that explains clearly how this works in this particular case.] To claim that "amortizing the bond over 20 years makes sense because the roads will last 20 years" misses a key point -- that amortization schedules can vary dramatically, and in this case the amortization schedule avoids burdening the current taxpayer by putting an enormous burden on the next-generation taxpayer.

To use round numbers, the current $2 million bond will end up costing the taxpayers about $3 million to repay, over 20 years. In nominal terms, that's a huge interest charge. What about present value terms? In present value terms, the discounted amount might be relatively small, assuming a very small interest rate. $3 million over $2 million means an interest rate of 2-3%. But Wall Street wishes for a lot of things -- we're all now living through the consequences of "wishing won't make it so" -- and there is zero reason to suppose that we're looking at 2% or 3% rates over the next 20 years. I'm not saying that Mt. Lebanon will actually have to pay back more than the scheduled 2-3% interest. [A careful reader called me to note that the total payback is closer to $4 million, which means that the interest rate is closer to 3% than to 2%.] But if Mt. Lebanon doesn't have the cash lying around 20 years ago to do that, and to make the large back-end payments in particular, then it will -- you guessed it -- have to borrow money again. And at what rate? Just like my mortgage and my anticipated ability to refinance it in the future if I need or want to, because I'm banking on home values rising or interest rates falling or both, a 20-year bond these days is a gamble, where the odds aren't as clearly settled in your favor as they used to be.

Just about every critical comment that I've read on this topic has invoked the "credit card" analogy, as in "you can pay your bills with your credit card, but you'll end up paying in the end, regardless." There are times when it makes sense to pay bills with a credit card -- when the card has a guaranteed low rate that's better (lower) than the return that you're getting on your money elsewhere. If you look at it that way, a $2 million bond issue isn't an expense so much as an investment. To take the most generous interpretation, Mt. Lebanon is paying $2 million of its money -- its tax revenues -- at 2% over the next 20 years. Is it making more than that with the money that it's not spending, or spending on other things?

And is there any evidence that this kind of analysis and evidence to back it up -- amortization, present and future values and so on -- motivated the Commission's decision?
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Possible Grenade Found In Mt. Lebanon Home

The Allegheny County bomb squad was called to a Mt. Lebanon home this evening after a resident found a device that looked like a grenade while cleaning house.

County dispatchers said the device looked like a "old-fasioned pineapple-like grenade," but the bomb squad hasn't confirmed if it was real or live. No one was hurt, and no evacuations were needed. The device has been removed from the Brafferton Road home, dispatchers said.

Link: www.post-gazette.com/pg/09175/979733-100.stm


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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

MLHS Grad To Help Raise Money For Friend With MS

When they travel to Europe, most Americans fly. Kiersten Rosenberg, however, will swim. The 2002 Mt. Lebanon High School graduate will attempt to swim the English Channel between June 30 and July 6 before she ventures on to Paris, Munich and Milan on an extended vacation.

Rosenberg will not be alone in her adventure or travels. Former Villanova University teammates, Tori DeLollo and Trista Felty, will make the journey, too.

As a relay team, the three will cross the Channel in an effort to raise funds and awareness for Multiple Sclerosis, a disease with which their friend, Lauren Schulman, was diagnosed in August 2007.

Link: www.thealmanac.net/ALM/Story/06-24-Rosenberg-swim-w-pix

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Tax Picture Gloomy In Tough Economy

"The stew is going bad, because of all sorts of ingredients that aren't working together," said Mt. Lebanon resident and taxpayer William Lewis.

The state shortfalls and projected increases in taxes across the board may end up driving Lewis, a 30-year resident of Mt. Lebanon, out of Allegheny County.

"We are facing a 40-50 percent increase in school taxes to pay for the $115+million high school, quadrupling of PSERS (state retirement fund) fees for schools ($5 million minimum), and underfunded municipal pension funds. There's underfunded retiree medical coverage for schools, more fees to pay for EPA sewer repairs, and the municipality is so strapped they have to borrow money to pay for street repair," Lewis said.

Mt. Lebanon parking authority can't keep up with debt payments, Allegheny County may have to reassess all properties. Now we are told the state withholding tax is going up. The average citizen cannot see any increase in services, yet all these costs keep going up and up. We were told casino revenue would lead to 'substantial reduction' in school taxes. I got a $191 reduction on a $6,000 school tax bill. That casino money was a bust," Lewis said.

Two state officials, however, say they support reductions in state spending before increasing taxes--Rep. Matt Smith (D-Mt. Lebanon) and Sen. John Pippy (R-Moon).

Link: www.thealmanac.net/ALM/Story/06-24-PA-budget-B

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Guest Blogger Dave Franklin is Angry and Mystified: More on the Curious Case of the Mt. Lebanon Commission and its Paving Bonds

Regular Blog-Lebo readers will recognize Dave Franklin by name as a frequent, thoughtful commenter here. Dave is a Lebo native, a local lawyer, and a long-time community volunteer. Dave was so incensed by recent news that the Mt. Lebanon Commission has authorized a $2 million "wrapped" bond issue to pay for street resurfacing that he invested some serious study time in the issue, then wrote out a comment that is so long that it won't fit in the Blogger template.

Joe and I are welcoming Dave today as a guest blogger, so that his comment on the bonds can appear here, "above the fold." I posted my own thoughts on this insanity over at Pittsblog last night, in part because I wanted to show all of Pittsburgh (the Pittsburgh that reads Pittsblog, anyway) what foolishness is going on our here. Dave, however, hits the inside story on the head. What follows are his words:

After being somewhat harsh on this issue yesterday, I thought it best to give the Commissioners the benefit of the doubt and better understand their collective reasoning and their individual positions on this issue. So, I passed on the 11 & 12 year old Little League Championship game at Dixon Field last night and settled in to watch a replay of Monday's Commission Meeting. If you have not had the pleasure of hearing the debate (or lack thereof) for yourself, please try to catch one of the remaining replays. Not only is it important to better understand what just happened on the unbelievable street bond issue, but it is also an amazing (and somewhat disturbing) look at how decisions are made to spend our money.

I was shocked over how little debate or explanation occurred when the pro-bond Commissioners were pressed on the issue by two informed citizens and Commissioner Miller. I fully expected Messrs. Colby, Raja, DeIuliis and Daley to explain - on the record - why it made sense to completely depart from good fiscal practice and float a bond to re-surface 11 streets. I truly hoped that they would offer individual pearls of wisdom that had not been picked up by the P-G reporter in attendance and then it would all make sense. Sadly, that never happened. Instead, these guys AGREED with the comments made by the residents and Mr. Miller to the effect that such recurring infrastructure costs should *not* be the basis of a bond issue, and more importantly that such tactics do *not* make for good economics OR good governance. Mr. DeIuliis even gave a very sincere statement suggesting that this decision would improperly lay considerable debt at the feet of a future Commission (yo, what about my feet!) and added that the ONLY reason he was voting YES was because the municipality had already signed a contract to start the work.......right about then was when I almost jumped through the TV.

Let me understand this - during the last budget process, a decision was made to cut certain street and sidewalk work from the operating budget. In return, each household realized a tax savings equal to about a large pizza and a beer (not even 2 beers). Now, just 6 short months later, they magically conclude that 11 streets and sidewalks absolutely need to be re-surfaced.

Okay, perhaps I can live with the story up until this point. After all, our streets do need to be maintained. However, rather than first figuring out HOW they are going to PAY for the resurfacing work, they instead place the cart squarely in front of the horse and sign a $2 million contract with some lucky contractor and tell him to proceed. Then and only then do they stop and ask themselves, "How the hell are we
going to pay for this?"

Unfortunately, in times like these, our budget is stretched so thin that they came up with what they thought to be the only viable solution - a 20 year wrapped bond that essentially turns this $2 million expense into a $3.7 million long term elephant.

As they voted, each Commissioner (except for Mr. Colby) explained his vote. Mr. DeIuliis noted that the ONLY reason that he was voting for the bond was because the municipality had already signed the contract and the contractor had already started to perform. That may be true, but it also rings rather hollow. At a minimum, it begs the question of why would we even proceed down the path without the cash. Clearly, these officials all firmly believe that it is wrong to fund this type of
recurring work with bonds. Why then wasn't the critical question (HOW ARE WE PAYING FOR THIS?) asked before the contract was bid, awarded and signed? Or if that question was asked and insufficiently answered, why weren't contingencies written into the contract to allow the municipality to delay the work, reduce the work or terminate the contract based on the source of funding? At an absolute minimum, why not have a termination for convenience clause in the resurfacing contract? No one's hands would be tied then!

Mr. DeIuliis is a contractor, Mr. Daley is a lawyer, Raja is a business owner and, if that's not enough, we have a solicitor to watch over all of them. All of these men know that such customary provisions are readily available for their use and our collective benefit (and protection). Sure, we might then owe a couple bucks to the shunned contractor to cover some of his ramp up and raw materials costs, but nothing remotely close to the $3.7 million that we just signed up for.

I then anxiously awaited remarks from Raja. Surely he would offer the carrot that I was looking for. The one morsel of truth that would make all of this seem okay. Instead, Raja quickly commented that taxing and borrowing decisions are "balancing acts" and therefore he had to vote YES. With all due respect Mr. Commissioner . . . . Duh! Of course these decisions are balancing acts. What I want to know from you Sir is what facts, information, risks and benefits in your mind caused the see-saw to tilt in favor of incurring this type of debt for what everyone concedes is a project not worthy of bonding? How will we fund the resurfacing of 11 streets next year, and the year after that and the year after that? As Mr. Miller so perfectly offered, "If you pay your gas bill with a credit card, have you really paid your gas bill?"

I could go on and on, but I won't. I would just note that Messrs. Daley and DeIuliis seemed genuinely reluctant to vote in favor of the bond. They all but applauded the citizen's remarks in opposition to the plan and they each echoed portions of the passionate speech by Mr. Miller. I even sensed a sizable pause before Mr. DeIuliis cast his vote. I thought he was gonna flip! It just seemed to me that these guys were casting their votes based on something that the rest of us don't know about.

Those of you who follow this blog know that I despise conspiracy theorists, however it certainly appears that the decision to do a 180 on streets and sidewalks, as well as the decision to float a bond to make it happen, were both made with something else in mind. Were these reluctant votes made in exchange for a vote on something else? Who knows, but in my opinion, none of it passed the smell test and we all need to start paying attention.

Yes, I'm pissed off. I'm pissed off because in 20 years we'll still be paying for these 11 streets that, oh by the way, will probably need to be resurfaced at about that time. I'm pissed off because the Commissioners don't understand that while people expect a different level of services in Mt. Lebanon they cannot be reluctant to ask us to pay for them. I'm pissed off because in their desire to save face at budget time, we are now paying *more* for something that many of us assumed was already covered by the operating budget. I'm pissed off because I wasn't paying attention and didn't speak up.

And, I'm pissed off because I missed that baseball game.


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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mt. Lebanon To Pay For Streets, Sidewalks Through Bond

Mt. Lebanon commissioners voted 4-1 last night to finance a 2009 street reconstruction program through the issue of roughly $2 million in general obligation bonds. They also decided to approve designating $200,000 of that money for sidewalk repair.

"We should take the matter by the horns and pay as you go," said Dan Miller, the lone dissenting vote among the five commissioners. "I know my ward needs the sidewalks, but the policy is ridiculous."

Link: www.post-gazette.com/pg/09174/979289-100.stm

Link: www.post-gazette.com/pg/09176/979693-55.stm

Link: www.thealmanac.net/ALM/Story/06-24-ML-commission-B

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Route 19 Traffic Signal System To Reduce Congestion

Commuters using Route 19 in the South Hills soon may be getting relief from traffic congestion through a new regional signaling system.

Peters council last night approved an agreement with Upper St. Clair, Mt. Lebanon and Bethel Park for a joint project to synchronize traffic signals along Route 19.

The $533,000 project recently received a grant from the state to help ease traffic congestion significantly.

Link: www.postgazette.com/pg/09174/979290-147.stm

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Investments In Mt. Lebanon Retirement Community May Be Lost

Myron Cope spent most of the last two years of his life at Covenant at South Hills in Mt. Lebanon and, while he was happy with his apartment there, he worried about the retirement community's financial problems.

Now, the money the legendary Pittsburgh sports broadcaster invested there could be gone, said his daughter, Elizabeth. Cope, along with other residents, learned about Covenant's cash shortage long after he moved in, she said.

"He was mad, to say the least, but what could he do?" Elizabeth Cope said during a break in a U.S. Bankruptcy Court hearing Friday to decide issues on creditors' rights, the retirement home's continued operations and a pending sale to a family that owns a senior living complex in West Virginia. That sale could be decided July 28.

Link: www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/business/s_630335.html

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Residents Upset By Smell Of Mulch-Making

When she was a child, it was Mary D'Angelo's job to turn over the compost piles on her grandfather's apple farm in Gibsonia. "My grandfather was a pioneer in composting," she said. "Although it was quite hot, there was never a smell like this."

"This" was a pungent odor hanging in the air throughout a large cleared space in Mt. Lebanon's Robb Hollow Park. The municipality takes leaves and other organic yard debris from several communities and, twice a year, grinds it into tiny pieces. These pieces end up piled into large pyramids of decaying compost that will be bagged and sold later at the Mt. Lebanon golf course.


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Thursday, June 18, 2009

First Fridays Followed By Sustainable Saturdays

Mt. Lebanon's annual First Friday street fair will be joined this summer by a new event: Sustainable Saturdays.

Groups including the East End Food Co-op and Construction Junction will staff tables and talk to patrons each Saturday about sustainability and related issues, said Susan Morgans, the community's public information officer. Sustainability refers to the ability to maintain an ecosystem without destroying or depleting natural resources or polluting the environment.


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Teenager's Disability Project Cops Gold Award

Last summer, as Megan Bone volunteered at a summer camp for children with disabilities, she wondered what she could do to continue her service when she returned to her Mt. Lebanon home.

Less than a year later, a project to improve disability awareness among elementary school students has earned her a Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest award bestowed on Girl Scouts between the ages of 14 and 18.

Link: www.post-gazette.com/pg/09169/977996-55.stm

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Greek Festival Unwraps Centuries Of Traditions

Traditions of Greece and the Greece Islands will come alive this week as Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Lebanon welcomes men, women and children from near and far.

It's that time of year again as members of the church host their 37th Village Festival Wednesday through Saturday, June 17 through 20.

Link: www.thealmanac.net/ALM/Story/06-17-Roamin-S-Hills-L--Gregus-2-pix

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Crossing Guard Hit By Car Recovering

A school crossing guard struck by a motorist in Mt. Lebanon was seeing visitors from his hospital bed on June 10, said Mt. Lebanon Deputy Chief of Police Gene Roach.

Roach said he and Mt. Lebanon Police Chief Coleman McDonough visited crossing guard Salvatore Sapienza at Mercy Hospital, and that he appeared to be in good spirits. "He seemed OK, and said he'd like to go home," Roach said. "But as a precaution, there are tests they wanted to run. We're hopeful he can come home soon."

Link: www.thealmanac.net/ALM/Story/06-17-ML-crossing-guard-hit-B

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11 Streets To Be Repaved

Street reconstruction will be taking place on 11 streets in Mt. Lebanon this summer for a cost of $2.1 million, Finance Director William McKain said.

This price includes two years worth of street reconstruction. Work will continue into the end of October. The goal is to complete all 11 this year, which means there will not be any reconstruction next year, Public Works Director Thomas Kelley said.

Link: www.thealmanac.net/ALM/Story/06-17-Ml-streets-repaved


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Commission Weighing New Bond Debt

Commissioners in Mt. Lebanon are weighing whether to authorize a $4.4 to $4.5 million bond for street and sidewalk construction, and refinancing earlier debt.

The board discussed the bond on June 8. Some $2 million would be used to fund two years worth of street reconstruction, and a prior $2.4 million bond would be called and refinanced at a lower interest rate. Mt. Lebanon Finance Director William McKain estimated the municipality would save about $75,000 from refinancing. Other officials, however, say "wrapping" that 2004 debt will cost the municipality more money, not save money.

Link: www.thealmanac.net/ALM/Story/06-17-ML-bond-issue-B

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Book About Redheads Features Mt. Lebanon Sisters

Nobody ever forgets who Rachel and Hannah Donehue are. The little girls -- 6 and 3, respectively -- often are the only kids in the room who have bright, flaming-red hair, which got them featured in a book about redheaded children.

The origin of the Mt. Lebanon girls' hair perplexes their parents, David and Teresa Donehue, who both are brunettes, although some extended family members on each side have red hair. The recessive gene that produces the copper locks must have been dormant for awhile, Teresa Donehue says.

Link: www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/lifestyles/books/s_629768.html


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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pippy and Smith Are Tweeting

If you don't understand what the title of this posting means, then you haven't been using Twitter, the social networking and micro-blogging service that continues to grow in popularity.

State Senator John Pippy and State Representative Matt Smith have joined the Twitterverse to better communicate with their constituents. You can find Senator Pippy at www.twitter.com/SenatorPippy and Representative Smith at http://www.twitter.com/RepMattSmith.

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Mt. Lebanon Agrees On Superintendent Contract

School board members and prospective Mt. Lebanon Superintendent Dr. Timothy Steinhauer reached agreement on a four-year contract which calls for Steinhauer to begin on July 1. The board vote was unanimous in approving the contract agreement.

Link: www.thealmanac.net/ALM/Story/06-17-ML-superintendent-contract-B

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Parishioners To Pray For Those Who Desecrated Statue Of Mary

Parishioners at St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon will pray tonight for the vandals who desecrated a beloved statue of the Virgin Mary.

Members of the church will pray the rosary at 7 p.m. in the grotto where the statue once stood, to be followed by a Mass indoors at 311 Washington Road.

"It's the parish's prayerful response to what happened," said the Rev. David Bonnar, pastor of the church. "We certainly want to pray for those who did this, and to reaffirm our devotion to the Blessed Mother."

Link: www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/pittsburgh/s_629753.html


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Friday, June 12, 2009

As Construction Budget Grows, So Will High School

The scope of the high school renovation project in Mt. Lebanon increased somewhat Monday as school directors approved plans for a roughly $115 million project that will include an eight-lane swimming pool and a third gymnasium.

After a lengthy discussion and public comment session, the board voted 7-2 to give architects for Celli-Flynn Brennan permission to present the initial schematic drawings to the state Department of Education. School directors Mark Hart and James Fraasch cast the dissenting votes.

Link: www.post-gazette.com/pg/09162/976517-55.stm

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Health Club Plan Clears Hurdle

Kossman Development Co. cleared the first of several hurdles in its intent to build an LA Fitness center at Castle Shannon and Mt. Lebanon boulevards.

Developers hoping to construct the 46,000-square-foot health club in a site zoned R-2 residential in Mt. Lebanon have secured a text amendment to the municipal ordinance. A 3-2 vote at a commissioners meeting Monday added a new "Section 406.4.2 - Health Club" to Section 1402 Definitions.

Link: www.post-gazette.com/pg/09162/976516-55.stm

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

'Roycroft Crew' Of 11 Graduating With Memories, Huge Party

They've shared snowball battles, Easter egg hunts, SAT anxiety. There were rites-of-passage walks to the neighborhood shopping center, at least one serious attempt at digging to China and, as they grew up, they tried -- with varying degrees of success -- to earn their drivers licenses on the first attempt.

Tonight, they graduate together from Mt. Lebanon High School, to be followed by a group graduation party. "Our last hurrah," Emily McGinty said

Link: www.post-gazette.com/pg/09162/976532-55.stm

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Denis Theatre To Host Films, Fun This Summer

The economy may be down and out, but fundraising efforts and support for Mt. Lebanon's former Denis Theatre is stronger than ever, says Denis board member Ann Kemerer. "We are busy with First Friday, theater cleanups, and yes, we are bringing movies back to Mt. Lebanon starting in late June," Kemerer said.

The Denis opened in 1938 and closed in 2004. Mt. Lebanon Commissioner Raja bought the property in 2007 for $668,500. He leases it to the Denis Theatre Foundation, a non-profit group which seeks to reopen the Denis as an arts center. The foundation will need at least $3 million to see their dreams realized. They've raised over $300,000 so far.

Link: www.thealmanac.net/ALM/Story/06-10-ML-denis-theatre-update-B


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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mt. Lebanon Crossing Guard Struck By Car

A Mt. Lebanon crossing guard was struck and injured this morning at the intersection of Cedar Boulevard and Salem Drive. Mt. Lebanon police said Salvatore Sapienza, 59, of Castle Shannon, was struck at 7:47 a.m. He was taken to UPMC Mercy, and police said he was alert in the ambulance.

The driver of the vehicle that struck Mr. Sapienza was Yvonne Webster, 43, of Scott, police said. They quoted witness accounts that Ms. Webster apparently failed to see Mr. Sapienza in the intersection. Police said she would be cited.

Link: www.post-gazette.com/pg/09161/976338-100.stm

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Vandals Target Another Mt. Lebanon Church

Authorities are searching for vandals who targeted a second church in Mt. Lebanon this week.

Police said the damage was done at the Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church. The pastor told Channel 11 News that someone spray-painted the church's doors over the weekend. He said the graffiti has already been cleaned up.

Vandals also toppled and shattered a statue of the Virgin Mary on Saturday at the St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon. They wrote "666" on the statue's forehead. Police are investigating whether the acts of vandalism are connected. Anyone with information is asked to contact police.

Link: www.wpxi.com/news/19711428/detail.html

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Newsweek Ranks Us As 1,181

Newsweek magazine has included six Allegheny County high schools on its list of the 1,500 top U.S. public high schools.

The school districts and their ranks are: Pine-Richland, 814; Upper St. Clair, 917; Quaker Valley, 1,163; Mt. Lebanon, 1,181; North Hills, 1,317; and North Allegheny, 1,326.

The rankings are based on a "challenge index" which takes the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests given at a school in May and divides that by the number of seniors graduating in May or June. Schools with a ratio of at least 1.0 are included on the list. By this measurement, these are in the top 6 percent of public high schools nationwide.

Link: www.newsweek.com/id/201160

Link: www.postgazette.com/pg/09160/976107-100.stm

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History Center Welcomes Visitors

The Historical Society of Mt. Lebanon re-formed about 11 years ago to interpret and preserve the history of Mt. Lebanon which extends more than six square miles.

Derived from Cedar of Lebanon trees brought to Bower Hill Road by the Rev. Joseph Clokey around 1850, the name Mt. Lebanon became official when a post office, serving less than 100 people, opened in 1855.

After years of meeting in the Mt. Lebanon Public Library, the historical society recently opened its history center at 200 Lebanon Avenue in Mt. Lebanon. "What We Wore" is the theme of this first exhibit featuring donated or loaned clothing dating back to 1890.

Link: www.thealmanac.net/ALM/Story/06-10-Roamin-S--Hills-2-pix-2-info-boxes


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First First Friday

Summer is Mt. Lebanon's charmed season. School is finished. Contentious School Board and Commission elections and debates are on hiatus. The swimming pool is open. Families and friends look forward to vacations and fireworks, to Kennywood Day, afternoons in the garden, and the ritual throwing-in-the-towel from the Pirates (oops! We've passed that milestone already!). But all together now: Let's Go Pens! Nothing shows off the best of the Pittsburgh city-state (Pittsburgh-as-ancient-Corinth) better than Penguins playoff mania. It's a great way to kick off the season.

Last Friday evening was the kickoff of the 2009 First Friday season. As usual, I missed it; I was on the road. To be precise, on Friday evening I was taking a side-trip to the east portal of the Moffat Tunnel, above Boulder, Colorado, after visiting Berry Best Smoothie Co., McGuckin Hardware [the folks at Rollier's have to see this place!], and the Falafel King [check out the rosewater lemonade]. After some trainspotting, we finished up with dinner at the Sundance Lodge and Cafe, watching thunder and lightning dance across the Rocky Mountains.

For one reason or another, I expect to miss the July and August First Fridays, too. There is some hope for September!

What happened in Mt. Lebanon on Friday evening? The poster hints at a great time.


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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Commencement is Coming!

The Mt. Lebanon High School commencement begins Thursday evening, June 11, at 6:30 pm. In the high school stadium, assuming that the weather is clear.

The Lebo Class of 2009 will hear some commencement speaking, but nothing they hear will be wiser or righter than the commencement address delivered last week at Shady Side Academy by Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor who grew up in Churchill and, of course, attended Shady Side. A taste:
My view is that Wikipedia and projects like it belong at the heart of a high school and college education. Instead of turning to a handful of approved sources and paraphrasing them to write a ten-page U.S. History paper that will be viewed and graded only by the teacher – who looks at a stack of papers and anticipates the same bad movie, twenty times – you can be asked to demonstrate a sustained and original contribution to a Wikipedia article on an important topic, having to contend with conflicting sources and others’ arguments, learning to discern and then defend truth amidst chaos – and to refine your own view in light of what you discover. There are few things as devastatingly disarming to others as admitting when you’re wrong.

For the world you are entering – really the one you’ve been in all along – is one swimming in received wisdom, accepted uncritically. Too easily we farm out the hard work of knowing whether our society is on a sustainable path to policymakers, experts, or the media. It’s like: Katie Couric will tell us if there’s anything genuinely
worth worrying about. But these channels of authority are overwhelmed, dysfunctional, and in some cases outright corrupt.

What will reinforce them, or even take their place, is something you can help build, with tools that even ten years ago were unknown. The key is to move from the reactive, desultory world of Charlie Brown to one in which you appreciate that you are generally at least as empowered as the next person, and to realize the ethical dimension that accompanies the day-by-day as well as the landmark events in life. As my best friend at Shady Side put it, reflecting on what he knows now that he and I had missed in high school, one of the best ways to evaluate your success is the effect you have on a room of people – family or strangers – when you enter. Does it become brighter or darker? That’s something you can choose, even though too often it’s just a script followed without much thought. Enterprises like Wikipedia urge us to ask the same question in our virtual lives, knowing how often they touch real ones.
A lot of Zittrain reads like a little of my own hypothetical commencement address, from a couple of years ago. Or the reverse.
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School Board Approves Plans For High School

The Mt. Lebanon school board last night approved schematic drawings for what is now a $115 million high school renovation project.

Until last night, the board had talked about keeping the project at $110 million, which was earlier targeted as the district's borrowing limit. But more updated figures have increased the borrowing threshold to about $115.5 million, said Finance Director Jan Klein.

As a result, the majority of the board voted to include two additional lanes for the pool -- bringing the total to eight lanes -- and add a third gym to the renovation project.

Link: www.postgazette.com/pg/09160/976072-100.stm

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Ring A (Quite Large) Bell For Peace At This Mt. Lebanon Church

There is something very right about being on Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon early on a Sunday afternoon, when the massive tower bells of Southminster Presbyterian Church are pealing.

The sound is bold yet comforting, taking you back to a place and time you've probably never been, as this is the only change-ringing tower in Western Pennsylvania and among fewer than 50 in North America.

Link: www.post-gazette.com/pg/09160/975981-155.stm

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Water Line Break Floods Mt. Lebanon Homes

Emergency services personnel were finishing up work after a water line break in a residential area of Mt. Lebanon this afternoon.

Four to six houses on Kelso Road were affected by the break, which occurred in an area between Kelso and Moreland Drive. The break occurred around 10:15 a.m. and left four to five feet of water in the basement of at least one residence, according to Joseph Thuransky, Mt. Lebanon deputy fire chief.

Link: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09159/975915-100.stm

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Mt. Lebanon Church's Statue Of The Virgin Mary Damaged By Vandals

The grotto dedicated to the Blessed Mother at St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon was meant to be a place of serenity where parishioners could go to meditate or pray.

But the scene was anything but serene Saturday morning, when a worker opening the church found a statue of the Virgin Mary in the grotto damaged and defaced. The statue had been knocked over, with its left arm and several pieces of the left side broken off.

In addition, 666 was written across the statue's forehead in orange paint. "It's just a really horrific act," said the Rev. David J. Bonnar, who has been pastor at St. Bernard for just two weeks

Link: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09159/975804-55.stm

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Bradley Center Property Back On Market

The former Toner Institute/Bradley Center complex at Dorchester Avenue and McNeilly Road, Mt. Lebanon, is on the market after the Salvation Army decided not to buy the six-building complex. The property, formerly used as a school, includes eight acres and 81,000 square feet of building space, said Edward Doran, executive vice president, CVA Oxford, who is marketing the site with Michael R. Daniels.

Link: www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/s_628463.html


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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Mt. Lebanon Gets New Superintendent

When Timothy J. Steinhauer, assistant superintendent at the North Allegheny School District, takes over as superintendent of the Mt. Lebanon School District on July 1, he'll be on familiar turf.

His family lived in Mt. Lebanon for several years, his oldest son, Luke, 15, attended kindergarten and first grade at Markham Elementary and his family worships at Mt. Lebanon United Lutheran Church.

And, Dr. Steinhauer and his family, which also includes his wife, Kimberly, and younger son, Nathan, 12, expect to make it even more familiar turf as they plan to sell their home in Upper St. Clair and move to Mt. Lebanon.


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History Center To 'Dress For Success' In Center Debut

The Historical Society of Mount Lebanon will realize a milestone when it opens a door to the past on Friday. The 140-member organization christens its new History Center in the former Dr. Clarence McMillan house on Lebanon Avenue with an exhibit titled "What We Wore."

"It is just the perfect space for us right now," said M.A. Jackson, the society's president. "We have a reception area, the second room will be a display area and the back room is for our files and our research."

Link: www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/s_627997.html

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Lebo HS Gets Silver Rating

Three local high schools have made the list of America's Best High Schools as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair and Peters Township high schools received a silver ranking. Schools receive gold, silver, bronze or honorable mention awards. No local schools received a gold ranking.

Pennsylvania ranked 17th, along with Kentucky, in the number of schools receiving an award. Only one school in the state, Julia Masterman Secondary School in Philadelphia, received a gold award. The ratings system uses publicly available test scores and curriculum information to rank schools based largely on how well they perform against statistical expectations based on students' past performance.

Link: www.thealmanac.net/ALM/Story/06-03-best-school-awards

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Mt. Lebanon Student Wins Trip To Greece

For most people, summer consists of a simple vacation at the beach. For others it entails flying to Greece on an all-expense paid trip and going on a tour while being accompanied by your idol.

This was the grand prize awarded to Julia Maloney for her flawless performance in the Percy Jackson & the Olympians Mythology Bee, held recently at Jefferson Middle School in Mt. Lebanon, where Maloney is a sixth grade student. "They asked Greek gods questions mostly, like which god did this and that," said Maloney.

Link: www.thealmanac.net/ALM/Story/06-03-Youth---Mythology-Bee-winner-1-pix

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Architects Present High School Plan

The architects working on the design plan for the new Mt. Lebanon High School presented the specifics of their plan to the Mt. Lebanon School Board in a standing room only special meeting June 1. Directors will vote whether or not to approve the design at their meeting June 8.

If approved, the construction and renovation would take place over a period of up to three and a half years, said John Taormina from P.J. Dick, a local architect firm working on the project.

Link: www.thealmanac.net/ALM/Story/06-03-ML-new-high-school

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Mt. Lebanon Hires Steinhauer As Superintendent

Timothy Steinhauer, assistant superintendent of secondary education and curriculum in the North Allegheny School District, last night was named the new superintendent of Mt. Lebanon schools.

The Mt. Lebanon school board unanimously voted to hire Steinhauer, who worked in North Allegheny since 2006.

Link: www.postgazette.com/pg/09153/974439-100.stm

Link: www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/s_627759.html

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