Sunday, September 27, 2009

MLHS Class of 1989 20 Year Reunion Coming Soon!

Just a friendly reminder to my fellow Class of 1989 classmates that our 20 year reunion is less than a month away. If you are an '89 grad and haven't registered yet, what are you waiting for?!? If you know someone who is a '89 grad, please make sure that they know about the reunion as well.

All of the information about the event can be found at We hope to see you there!

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Unbeaten Shaler Runs Past Mt. Lebo For Win

Heavy rain and swirling winds did little to dampen Shaler's homecoming celebration. The Titans remained undefeated by defeating Mt. Lebanon, 21-12, in a Class AAAA nonconference matchup at Lou Martig Stadium in Shaler Township.

Shaler's Jesse Della Valle rushed for two first-half touchdowns, and quarterback Tyler Bills threw a key second-half touchdown pass to propel the Titans (4-0) to victory.



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Mulch Alert!

[We don't have time or resources to publish every community announcement that comes our way, but this one seemed useful enough to the entire community -- and beyond! -- that it seemed to be worth sharing.]

Mulch Alert!

The Mt. Lebanon Arboretum Project is a group of citizens working to preserve and enhance our township’s trees. With fall projects underway, we’d like to encourage everyone to help by following proper mulching techniques. Piling mulch up against the trunk can weaken and eventually kill your trees. Mulch traps moisture against the trunk, which encourages decay of the protective bark and allows the entry of rot, insects, and disease. Small rodents find the deep mulch an attractive home and chew on the tree bark for sustenance in the winter. Once the cambium is damaged, the tree will decline and can die. Keep all mulch away from the trunk! The area where the trunk meets the ground, or root flare, should be entirely visible. Keep the mulch 6 to 12 inches away from the flare, and to a thickness of no greater than 3 inches at any point. Mulch any thicker can impede the passage of air and water to the roots, stressing the tree, and may also kill it. Your shrubs need similar protections-keep the mulch to a minimum and place it properly.

Tell your neighbors! Thank you-

Ron Block- The Mt. Lebanon Arboretum Project


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Friday, September 25, 2009

Manager Reaches Out To Mt. Lebanon Residents In Casual Way

While sipping a tall mug of dark-roasted coffee, Mt. Lebanon Manager Stephen Feller answered questions from a sprinkling of residents at a local coffee shop and offered his insights about the future of the municipality.

The hour long meeting Tuesday morning with Feller at Uptown Coffee in Mt. Lebanon's downtown was an attempt by the local government to garner feedback in a casual forum.

"This is just one more way to reach out," Feller said. "This is a very small town, and most people aren't shy about offering their opinions."


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Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Constructive Suggestion Regarding the Lebo High School Project

Lebo architect Dan Rothschild, who has volunteered some constructive design advice to the Lebo School Board in connection with the high school renovation, has lobbed another friendly suggestion into the conversation: a community-based School Planning Board to meet and consult with the project architects while the design proceeds. Here is the text of his most recent letter:

September 23, 2009

Dr. Timothy J. Steinhauer
Mt. Lebanon School District
7 Horsman Drive
Pittsburgh, PA 15228

Subject: School Planning Board
Mt. Lebanon High School Additions and Renovations

Dear Dr. Steinhauer:

I want to sincerely thank you for the time granted to me at the recent Architect's Update. I know it was an extremely long meeting.

After the Architect's Update, Dan Remely approached me and inquired about the time frame that would be necessary for the potential School Planning Board. It was actually on my list of talking points to discuss, but I got sidetracked toward the end and skipped over it.

Here is what I was going to propose:

Week 1 and
Week 2: Advertise and select nine candidates
Week 3: School Planning Board Meeting 1
Week 4: School Planning Board Meeting 2
Week 5: Public meetings at Jefferson and Mellon
Week 6: School Planning Board Meeting 3
Week 7: School Planning Board Meeting 4
Week 8: Report to School Board

Of course, the School Board should add their input to this proposed process. At the end of eight weeks, the School Planning Board’s work would be done, or the School Board could request that they continue. As I said at the meeting, the School Planning Board works for you, ensures that your goals are met, and adds needed additional insight based on their professional experiences. This is a proven community consensus model.

As you are considering the concept of a School Planning Board, and discussing it at your next Board meeting, you are probably wondering about the timing and benefits of this process. It would be appropriate for the architects to continue with their process during this time. The hope would be that the School Planning Board would work with your architects to come up with ideas that meet (or exceed) design goals, and save money If the School Board agrees that any of these new ideas are beneficial, the cost savings in construction would easily outweigh any additional architectural fees that might be encountered, a true win/win. Timing should be negligible considering the early phase of the project.

This process will enhance the partnership between the School Board and the community. Mt. Lebanon is blessed with many talented and dedicated residents who can help our community be better clients, and assist you in finding our collective voice. Let us create a true collaborative model, one that is energized by positive synergy.


Daniel Rothschild, AIA LEED Accredited Professional

Cc: Mt. Lebanon School Board members

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Mt. Lebanon Standoff Ends When Gunman Shoots Self

A 4-hour police standoff in Mt. Lebanon ended when a gunman took his own life early this evening.

Ronald Giron, 51, apparently shot himself inside his home along Old Farm Road in the Sunset Hills neighborhood, Mt. Lebanon police Chief Coleman McDonough said. No one else was inside the home, McDonough said.

The standoff began about 1:45 p.m. when two Mt. Lebanon police officers attempted to serve a protection-from-abuse order that had been filed against Giron by his wife, police said.


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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

More on the School Board Bond Issuance

School Director Jo Posti has posted her thoughts to explain her support of the Mt. Lebanon School Board's recent decision to authorize the sale of $69 million of bonds to finance the ongoing high school renovation project.

It appears that the District can apply the proceeds to immediate cash obligations in connection with design fees, which are substantial.

The District has not said how much the project will cost in total. Nor has the District decided how to pay for the whole thing.

Read her discussion in full, here.

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My Favorite Mt. Lebanon Things, Continued

Next in an occasional series about thing I like about Mt. Lebanon:

I like Mt. Lebanon's well-trained, highly professional police department.

I was reminded of the service provided by the department when I read this news item this afternoon:

Schools in the Mt. Lebanon and Keystone Oaks school districts, plus Seton-LaSalle High School, were placed on lockdown or took other precautions this afternoon.

A man is barricaded in a house in the 400 block of Old Farm Road in the Sunset Hills section of Mt. Lebanon. Police arrived there around 2 p.m. to serve a protection from abuse order requested by his wife. When they went inside, he had a gun, and the officers backed out and called for backup.


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Mt. Lebanon Man Showcases City At G-20

The City of Pittsburgh and the surrounding region will be in the spotlight this week as host of the Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors or G-20, as it has come to be called.

And a Mt. Lebanon man will make sure that journalists from around the world see Pittsburgh as a world class city.

Philip Cynar, senior communications specialist for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and its Affiliates, will cater to approximately 2,000 G-20 delegates, dignitaries and ministers and another 3,000 members of the international media while they are in Pittsburgh this week.


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Commissioners Take A Look At Mulch At Robb Hollow

After hearing from residents who live near the municipality's mulch facility at Robb Hollow Park, commissioners last week took a look at the operation.

Some residents of Pinewood Drive have complained about the smell of decomposing organic material as well as noise from the grinders.

Residents can pile raked leaves at the curb. They are then collected and taken to the mulching facility. Compost materials are also stored at the public golf course.

Commissioners were presented with a study that indicated the current operation costs the municipality $174,595, which includes public works costs such as wages, equipment and overtime.

Tom Kelley, public works director, presented four alternatives. One would have residents bag leaves, which would then be picked up by Allied Waste Management. The cost is estimated at $205,574, according to John Daley, president of the commissioners.

Two other options would involve taking the collected leaves out of the municipality. Another option would involve keeping Robb Hollow and the golf course sites in use to a lesser degree and establishing a third processing site on McNeilly Road property owned by Mt. Lebanon. The estimated cost of this option would be more than $500,000. No action was taken.


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Seeing Red? No, Pink!

When a fire truck from Arizona rolls into Mt. Lebanon on Saturday, it won't sport the traditional red color of most fire engines. The truck that Arizona firefighter Dave Graybill is driving across the United States is pink. And Mr. Graybill encourages those who come to see the truck -- and public safety employees -- to wear pink, too.

It's all part of an effort to raise awareness and money to fight women's cancer. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The pink truck and its crew, along with the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department, will be the Fidelity and Citizens bank lots at 728 Washington Road about 6 p.m. Saturday.

Donations will be accepted for the American Cancer Society. Mr. Graybill began his cross-country tours in 2007. For more information, go to


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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Taste of Morocco Coming Here

Moroccan-born Abdel Khila hopes to open in October a Moroccan (with some French) restaurant on Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon. Called Kous Kous, the small space (formerly Enrico's) will be decorated with Moroccan tiles and other art.

"We're working on making it look authentic," said the multi-lingual Mr. Khila, on leave as a French and Arabic teacher at Upper St. Clair High School. He's doing a lot of the work remodeling the restaurant, but he formerly cooked at several -- Casbah, a Mediterranean and North Africa-themed restaurant in Shadyside, as well as Cafe Zinho and the late Baum Vivant and LaForet.

Signature dishes will include couscous, tagines and pastilles, or savory pie, he said earlier this week. "That's the fun part of Moroccan food -- a lot of it is unique to that country."


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Mt. Lebanon Filmaker Wins Documentary Emmy

Mt. Lebanon native Jeff Stimmel has won an Emmy for his documentary on a hell-raising painter from Pittsburgh. Stimmel, now living in Los Angeles, won a News and Documentary Emmy on Monday night for "The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale."

"Oh my gosh. I called everybody in the world last night," said his mother, Jeannine Stimmel, who said her son left a message on her answering machine Monday at her Mt. Lebanon home.


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Is the Lebo School Board Out of Control?

The Mt. Lebanon School Board is a runaway train wreck of fiscal irresponsibility. That's the conclusion drawn by School Director James Fraasch, who updated his blog last night with a passionate post about the most recent failures among his Board colleagues.

You should read the whole thing for itself, but the key points seem to be these:

As a member of the Republican Party, James hoped that he could join with his fellow Republicans, who hold a majority of Board seats, to bring fiscal sanity to the District. (James doesn't say that the Democrats on the Board were not interested in fiscal responsibility, but that's implicit in his argument. It's clear that the leading Dems on the Board have been big cheerleaders for a high cost high school renovation project.) Unfortunately, on the whole his fellow Republicans have not listened to reason. They are borrowing and taxing and spending in Mt. Lebanon like there is no tomorrow, and like residents won't notice.

He characterizes the District's reaction to President Obama's speech -- an outright ban in the elementary schools, a strong "don't show it message" delivered to teachers in middle and high schools -- as partisan (Republican) politics at its absolute worst. [Update and clarification: James has edited his post to point out that his objection is specifically directed at the Republican Party's nationwide campaign to discourage broadcasting the speech in schools.]

James is staying in his Board position, but he is walking away from his party. He's an Independent now.

Will this draw any reaction or response? Stay tuned.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Mt. Lebanon Knocks Off No. 2 Central Catholic

A blue and gold team looked like one of the top Class AAAA contenders in the state Saturday. It wasn't Central Catholic.

Mt. Lebanon rushed to a 30-point lead and fought off a second-half comeback, and the unranked Blue Devils upset No. 2 Central Catholic, 36-21, in a nonconference game yesterday afternoon at Carnegie Mellon.



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Friday, September 18, 2009

Why Lebo Didn't Show President Obama's Speech

The Mt. Lebanon School District put out the word that President Obama's recent speech to schoolchildren should not be shown live in District classrooms. The original message to District staff was that broadcasting the speech would be a teacher-by-teacher decision, and that the District expected that "very few" teachers would show the speech. That decision drew some intense fire in progressive quarters, which I reported earlier.

Some Mt. Lebanon parents are still very unhappy about the District's decision and are pressing the Superintendent and School Board to do something about it. My best guess is that nothing will be done; the controversy will die down pretty quickly. Whether or not the controversy *should* die down is something for another day.

I'm posting on the topic again because I've collected a little bit of evidence regarding the *reasons* why the President's speech wasn't shown, and the evidence is disturbing. It's disturbing because of the lack of leadership displayed by our local educational leaders.

The following are excerpts of messages to local residents explaining the District's position:

From Superintendent Dr. Tim Steinhauer: "For elementary students, the speech occurred during their lunch period. For our secondary students, teachers were given the opportunity to view the speech live if they believed it was connected to the curricular objective of the day."

From Markham principal Robert Mallery: "[I]n Mt. Lebanon we are blessed to have a community where our children hear this same message almost every morning from their parents. Unfortunately, there are many schools in the country where this is not at all the case and where the President’s message would have been more critical."

From School Director Josephine Posti: "the reason it won't be shown at the elementary level is that it's lunchtime and not logistically possible." [Updated: I changed this quotation to include the complete original sentence.

The sources are noted only to show examples. It is fair to assume that the range of responses consists of a coordinated effort by the District to explain itself, rather than ideas that happened to pop into the minds of individual administrators or Board members.

Let us translate these messages into English:

The "lunchtime" excuse I understand the response to mean this: At the elementary schools, because the speech was delivered at lunchtime, it would *not* disrupt instruction. Instead, it would disrupt students' sitting, eating, socializing, and playing. [Many children leave school at lunchtime, to eat at home or eat at local restaurants with family and friends.] It would disrupt the lunchtime break that some teachers enjoy during the middle of the day. [I don't mean to criticize the teachers, at least some of whom -- I hope -- were disappointed in the edict not to show the speech to their children.] The bottom line: Whatever the President of the United States said, it couldn't have been so important that we should deviate from the routine that we follow every day of the school year.

The "curricular objective" excuse. I understand the response to mean this: What the President of the United States was saying -- work hard, study, stay in school -- was of potential value only to a limited number of teachers and students who were studying topics *that day* to which the speech and its themes were relevant, and those teachers had the discretion regarding whether or not to show the speech. So, if a Social Studies course were studying "the history of public education in America" on Monday, but the speech was broadcast on Tuesday (as it was), then the speech would not be relevant; the teacher should not show the speech. In the high schools and middle schools, in other words, the speech *would* disrupt instruction. The bottom line: The excuse is crafted extremely carefully and narrowly so that it's just about impossible to imagine a scenario where the door was held wide open to show the speech. The excuse puts the burden and blame on individual teachers, but in a way that leaves teachers just about no option except not to show the speech. So long as the President's message consisted of "study hard, stay in school, do well," is there any curricular objective to which that is *not* relevant?

The "Mt. Lebanon students didn't need to hear the message" excuse. I understand the response to mean this: Mt. Lebanon students and their families already know and understand the value of working hard, studying hard, and staying in school. Families in less "fortunate" communities -- I understand the concept here to mean "poor people" -- don't know or understand that. The President wasn't going to say anything that Mt. Lebanon doesn't already know. In a phrase, Mt. Lebanon may not be better than he is, but Mt. Lebanon is better than its poor cousins.

Personally, I believe that this excuse is at the heart of the decisionmaking here. I don't share the view that there was some illegal censorship of the speech or that a right-wing fringe conspired to usurp the students' right to see the speech live. I think that this was old-fashioned Mt. Lebanon elitism at work -- or "exceptionalism," to use a little bit of fancier jargon. In fact, it's pretty easy to take all three of these excuses and wrap them into a single story that leads to a "no showing the speech" policy: Mt. Lebanon is smart and wealthy enough to get the message with the President's help; the message can't possibly be specifically relevant to any needs of our children and teachers; so we can't be bothered to arrange our schedules to show the speech. In the words of Saturday Night Live's The Church Lady, isn't Mt. Lebanon "special"?

Here's the thing: That logic is entirely rational, and it's entirely consistent both with one version of Mt. Lebanon's image of itself and with one version of the rest of Pittsburgh's "Caketown" image of Mt. Lebanon. There is a history here and a part of the community here that *does* view Mt. Lebanon as smarter and better and wealthier than the rest of Pittsburgh. (The "wealthier" part is true, of course, but not for all of Mt. Lebanon.)

That logic is entirely wrong, and indulging it shows a clear failure of leadership in the School District.

How do I get to that conclusion?

Let's make the assumption that Mt. Lebanon's public education system really is among the very best in America, not just in Pennsylvania or Western Pennsylvania, and let's make the assumption that Mt. Lebanon's educational leadership and many of its citizens want to preserve its high-level position.

If Mt. Lebanon really is the best of the best of the best, then it should lead by example. We *want* the rest of the country, the rest of Pennsylvania, and the rest of Western Pennsylvania to do what Mt. Lebanon does. As Mt. Lebanon goes, so goes the world. Remember the assumptions that I'm starting with, which focus on Mt. Lebanon really being the best to start with. I don't believe that's true. But if you're an educational leader and citizen here, would you be better off starting with the assumption that "we are and want to be the best," or would you prefer to work from the assumption that "we're mediocre and going to stay that way"? I'll take the first version, not the second.

Lead by example. That's what Mt. Lebanon should do. Is that what it did in this case? "Our children already get great support at home." That's good. I wish that were more true than it is, but it's a good start. "So we can't be bothered to reinforce that message at school." How does that second statement follow from the first? How is that leading by example? How does that sending a message to other schools, to parents, and to children that schools themselves value messages about the value of education? It doesn't. The School District had an opportunity to lead here, and it dropped the ball.

The Mt. Lebanon School District did not need to require that the speech be shown by every teacher; it did not need to require that every student watch the speech. The Mt. Lebanon School District could and should have sent out a memo to its staff that said, in effect, that showing the speech to students was a decision to be left in the hands of each classroom teacher, and that the District would make every effort to accommodate teachers and unit principals in their efforts to provide space and technical support that enabled the showing and viewing of the speech. The District could and should have emphasized that this speech represents an unusual and rare opportunity for students and teachers to discuss and apply critical thinking skills to a questions of obvious and unquestioned importance in the 21st century: The role of education, and the role of government leaders in encouraging and supporting education. The President's speech was simple and direct. Even young elementary school students could have benefited from a lesson that discussed its meaning, even a brief lesson.

Leadership is the issue here. Not censorship. If the Mt. Lebanon School District really is all that it thinks that it is, then it should have supported efforts to show the speech in school.
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Zamagias Washington Park Project in Limbo

Like no one saw this coming?

First there was this:

The economy might well be showing signs of resuscitation, but at least one major project in Mt. Lebanon appears to be going nowhere.

A year ago, the developers of Washington Park, a proposed development of high-end condominiums, businesses and green space, were granted a 12-month extension on the construction deadline.

At the time, Michael Heins, Zamagias Properties chief financial officer and project manager for Washington Park, said "the overall condominium market in the region has virtually dried up."

On Monday, he returned to a discussion meeting of Mt. Lebanon commissioners to say that Zamagias will be requesting an 18-month extension.

"The markets still aren't anywhere they need to be to support that kind of development," Mr. Heins said.

He added that there has been "some activity" but there are no contracts signed to purchase any of the proposed units priced between $300,000 and $1 million.

More in the Post-Gazette

[I've deleted the continuation of this post that suggested that the Commission has approved the request, because in my haste I was looking at news from a year ago. But stay tuned.]

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Heat and Light on the MtLHS High School Project

Lebo's high school renovation and criticism of it attracted a nibble from the wider press. From the Tribune-Review:
A Mt. Lebanon engineer and parent has revved up his criticism of spending $115 million to build a new Mt. Lebanon High School, but officials counter that his concerns have been addressed and are not shared by the district at large.

Dirk Taylor, a Mt. Lebanon resident and principal of Taylor Structural Engineers in Scott, said the administration and board have been courteous but have not addressed his concerns.

"They've been somewhat responsive, but it's been a shell game," he said.

Taylor contends that the best option for the district is renovating the high school, the oldest part of which dates to 1928. The school board is advancing an approach that combines renovation and new construction.

He said that wastes money and natural resources by demolishing 200,000 square feet of the complex's newest and most easily renovated space and spreads athletic facilities across the campus with less parking.

"Sometimes I get the impression they want to push through a new school whether it's the right thing or not," he said.

Here is the whole Trib story.

Meanwhile, Dirk Taylor sent me the full text of a letter to the editor that he sent to the Trib and the Post-Gazette, but that was not published. It is a good summary of his criticism of the project and the process:

"All Mt. Lebanon taxpayers should take a long, objective look at the preposterous High School reconstruction project that is being developed for bidding and construction next year. Now having been nearly 40 years since the last major High School addition/renovation, the building is in great need of a major renovation that will easily cost around $90 million in order to maintain the excellent quality of this facility that has served us well for many years. But we do not need the proposed total reconstruction project that will needlessly waste millions of tax dollars, destroy the campus, waste energy and natural resources, result in a less-functional building, and cost over 50% more than the highest-priced public school project ever undertaken in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Over the past 18 months I have raised serious issues with the Architects, School Board, and District Superintendent regarding the proposed High School reconstruction, with no substanative response. In July, I issued a 13-page report to the Superintendent and Board identifying numerous specific major problems with the design that has been approved and is being developed for bidding and construction in the summer of 2010. (I will be happy to share that report with any Mt. Lebanon resident or local media representative who requests a copy.) Those issues include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Counter to what has been presented to the public, travel distance between classrooms has been dramatically increased for the vast majority of students, with the maximum distance between classrooms in the academic wings increasing to 1,050 feet (one-fifth of a mile).

  • The proposed design represents a gross waste of taxpayer money, natural resources, and energy by needlessly demolishing and reconstructing about a quarter-million square feet of perfectly good structure. This includes tearing down over 200,000 square feet of the newest and most easily renovatable portion of the building, totally disregarding the future flexibility intentionally designed into that structure by the original architect.

  • The proposed design abandons one of the region’s most well-designed athletic complexes, and reconstructs it 300 feet away, across a road from the current building, requiring an unnecessary and expensive pedestrian bridge, increased student travel time, and providing no significant increase in the size of the main competition gym. It also ignors a much simpler and less expensive option for expanding the swimming pool without destroying the tennis courts and “pee-wee” baseball field.

  • Misleading and false information was presented to the public regarding the need for temporary classrooms and higher asbestos abatement costs to justify the need to replace rather than renovate the biggest, newest, and most easily renovatable academic wing. Misinformation was also used to incorrectly describe the current High School as a disfunctional building, and to to mischaracterize a renovation as nothing more than a “repair,” as if it would be a nothing more than a temporary “patch-job.”

  • The proposed design locates the main central corridor of student travel between academic wings through the center of the new cafeteria, directly between the servory and dining area.

  • The proposed design will require significant change in school policy regarding student “free time” back to an approach that was introduced 40 years ago and subsequently abandoned, presumably for good reason.

  • The proposed design causes far more disruption to the existing well-designed site over a 3-year period than would be required for a well-conceived renovation, adding millions to the cost, reducing the amount of available parking spaces, and eliminating athletic fields that are used by the School District and the Community.

  • The proposed design creates an unnecessary negative impact on the environment, totally disregarding the stated goal of obtaining a LEED Certification that may be obtainable through calculated “manipulation” of the application requirements.

I am a life-long Mt. Lebanon resident. My wife (also a life-long resident) and I have raised three daughters in the community, and plan to spend many more years here. I am also the principal owner of a structural engineering firm with nearly 30 years experience in building construction, including more than 100 significant public school projects. For the past 15 years, I have been Mt. Lebanon School District’s “go-to” structural engineer, having worked in each school, including more than a dozen projects at the High School. I know the building structure like the back of my hand. The issues I have raised are based on my knowledge of the community, the High School building structure, and a detailed review of the schematic design drawings that have been prepared by the Architects.

The current High School reconstruction design is not the best option for Mt. Lebanon. I truly hope that more Mt. Lebanon residents will take a closer look at the serious problems with the current design and voice your opinions. I will be happy to share more information with anyone who is interested. Now is the time to speak up to help turn the direction of this project back onto the right course."

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Mt. Lebanon, Dormont To Study Joint Police Work

Mt. Lebanon and Dormont share some common borders, but could they share a police force?

The possibility -- admitted by all involved to be in just the faintest stages of exploration -- was raised recently when officials from Dormont, a borough of 0.75 square miles and approximately 8,500 residents, invited their neighbors to a meeting that included mayors and managers as well as police chiefs.

"They're trying to figure out if we could share resources, although I don't know to what degree," said Gene Roach, Mt. Lebanon deputy chief. "Maybe it could be something like sharing investigative resources."


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Mt. Lebanon Native To Star In NBC Primetime Series

When NBC's new primetime comedy series "Community" premieres Thursday night, Pittsburghers might recognize a familiar face. Mt. Lebanon native Gillian Jacobs stars as Britta, the 28-year-old dropout with something to prove.

Gillian graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School in 2000 and went on to graduate from the Juilliard School's Drama Division.



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Library Seeks Public Input On Cuts

When word went out that the Mt. Lebanon Public Library stands to lose more than 10 percent of its annual budget due to funding cuts, the public was invited to attend forums soliciting ways to reduce the shortfall. Only two residents showed up Sept. 8 for the first of three forums.

One problem facing the library is the lack of a state budget, making it difficult to determine how much state funding will be available.

Another is that if the Allegheny County Library Association adopts a new formula for distributing money through the Regional Asset District, the Mt. Lebanon library could lose more than $170,000, said library director Cynthia Richey. The annual library budget is $1.6 million.


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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Lebo High School: What's the Rush?

Mt. Lebanon architect Dan Rothschild, whose thoughtful recent analysis of the Mt. Lebanon High School renovation was featured here the other day, has sent another insightful letter to Superintendent Tim Steinhauer and the School Board. Dan authorized me to post the text here:

Daniel Rothschild 25 Sunnyhill Drive, Mt. Lebanon, PA 412.561.2324

September 16, 2009

Dr. Timothy J. Steinhauer
Mt. Lebanon School District
7 Horsman Drive
Pittsburgh, PA 15228

Subject: The Process, Mt. Lebanon High School Additions and Renovations

Dear Dr. Steinhauer:

One of the highlights of the High School renovation process is the incredible detail on the High School website. Although certainly not a replacement for face-to-face communication, it offers a wealth of information. One of the most helpful assets is the recording of time during this process. Looking back at this chronology offers a striking contrast between the time period to decide which option to select and the time period for the schematic design.

The earliest entry for the current design team is July 2008. From that point forward, there was a deliberate seven month process to determine whether the high school project should proceed with Options 1, 2, or 3, a range that included renovation to totally new construction. I, for one, thought the School Board did an exemplary job of thoroughly vetting this information with the community. From community open houses at various schools, to public meetings, and continuous website updates, residents were given the opportunity to voice their concerns and add valuable insight.

At the February Board meeting, I was proud of this process as I heard the thoughtful final speeches from each of the Board members. At that vote, it was decided that a “version” of Option 2 would be selected. This is an important point, because the “version” status clearly showed that Options 1, 2, and 3 were not to be considered final designs but merely directions for the design.

At that point the process took a turn for the worse in relation to time.

The March Board meeting was cancelled, and the April Board meeting did not occur. On May 11th, the architects presented the first schematic design. Less than one month later, on June 8th, the Board approved the schematic design. What happened to the thoughtful and deliberate process to include community input that was so present during the previous seven months?

I could only conjecture why this happened. Could it be that the Board felt that their primary work was complete now that they selected a “version” of Option 2? Years of experience in the design field told me otherwise. Their heavy lifting was about to start. A “version” of Option 2 could run the gamut from doing just a little more than Option 1 to slightly less than Option 3. Working out the details of a “version” of Option 2 would be considerably more difficult than selecting options because of the wide range of choices and their effect on design, function, and cost.

The 28 days between March 11th and June 8th raise many questions in regard to process. Where were the community forums? I have heard mention of a “Community Advisory Panel”, did they meet? Was there teacher feedback? Or was the Board considering that the public process ended with the selection of a “version” of Option 2 and that residents should be able to sit in an audience on May 11th and offer comment on the spot after seeing the design for the first time? It appears the Board was content to let the architects make the critical decisions without public input.

The process during those 28 days has set a problematic trajectory in regard to the direction for the project, and could erode the trust between the community and the Board that was present at the February Board meeting. It is not too late for each Board member to ask themselves: is the current process the proper process for our community?

I would request that the Board reconsider continuing with the current design and choose a more thoughtful and collaborative approach rather than settle for expediency. There are many proven community consensus models to choose from, and I would be happy to share them with you.


Daniel Rothschild, AIA LEED Accredited Professional

Cc: Mt. Lebanon School Board members


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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Guest Post: Dysfunction in Mt. Lebanon

Frequent commenter and occasional guest poster Dave Franklin posted the following in a comment at this post, which referred to the Mt. Lebanon School District's decision to ban the classroom showing of President Obama's recent speech to schoolchildren. Joe and I thought that the comment was worth a full guest post.

Dave's words:

If someone in Mt. Lebanon is considering moving out of Mt. Lebanon because of this incident, let me know where you end up because according to published reports Peters Twp., Bethel Park, Chartiers Valley, Fox Chapel, Hampton, McKeesport, North Allegheny, North Hills, Penn-Trafford, Pine-Richland, Plum and Upper St. Clair didn't show the speech. Personally, I have no problem with the President of the United States or the cafeteria lady telling my kids to study hard and stay in school. And Mike, I agree that when given the opportunity, we should all take the high road.

However, I feel compelled to add that this issue only underscores the growing uncomfortable, petty tug-of-war that exists in Mt. Lebanon these days. Everything is a battle - but for what? Mr. Brown says “Fight for what is right?” What does that even mean? What are we fighting for? Why are we even fighting?

I received an email from a friend (a conservative Republican) the other day that really struck a chord with me. He said, "I have come to the conclusion that a cooperative, consensus-building, bipartisan approach is the only way ANYTHING is going to get done in Lebo. I am, quite frankly, sick of the personal agendas, divisiveness and exclusionary tactics employed by many within positions of power in this community. We are so lacking of any leadership within Lebo and we have stagnated because of the inability of anybody to unite the community." Amen! I’d wager $20 that I could stop 50 voters on Washington Rd and well over half wouldn’t even know the party affiliation of our School Board members and Commissioners!! Why?? Because they are absolutely irrelevant! Yet certain factions of this community continue to throw partisan wedges between us all.

When I was a kid growing up here, there were Rs and Ds, liberals and conservatives, have and have-nots. More importantly though, we had a whole helluva lot of strong leaders. Businessmen and volunteers who stepped up for the sake of stepping up. People willing to give of themselves without asking for something in return. People who said and did what was right, regardless of what other people may have thought or what their party told them to think. People like Robert Seymour, Bryson Schreiner, Wiley Bucey, Leon Hickman, Dave Wholeber, Wally & Guy Bland, Dr. Frank Pawlosky, Jack Armstrong, Stan Marshall, Ed Sell and others. I'm not implying that we don't have good people anymore, but their good deeds are certainly overshadowed (and in some instances left incomplete), due to all of the bickering and BS.

My supplement:

There are commenters here on the blog who are Democratic Committee members. There are commenters here who are Republican Committee members. There are independents; there are those who don't follow politics at all. There are lurkers -- lots of lurkers. Before any of you comments on this post (or to your friends and neighbors) and indulges the common reflex to blame the other side (or all of the sides) or -- equally unhelpfully, indulges the impulse to say, "vote for me" or "vote for this candidate" -- I ask you to do this: Please, look in the mirror. Are you and your words part of the problem? Take a deep breath, answer truthfully ("yes" will often be the truthful if painful answer), then proceed accordingly.

Specifically: How are you going to cooperate openly with people who disagree with you politically? How are you going to give of yourself without regard to your personal reputation or standing in elected or volunteer office, in order to make Mt. Lebanon a better place?
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Mt. Lebanon Delays Awarding Pavilion Construction Bids

Mt. Lebanon commissioners last night tabled the awarding of construction bids for additions to a parklet in the Washington Road business district.

It was noted early in the meeting that the small park, that features a fountain and seating as a greenspace away from the backdrop of traffic and concrete buildings, originally was budgeted around $400,000.

Mt. Lebanon's official Web site lists the original cost at $500,000.


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Mt. Lebanon School Board Considers $69 Million In Bonds

Discussion about renovations to Mt. Lebanon High School continued last night at the school board meeting, with members pondering if, and when, to issue $69 million worth of bonds to help fund the work.

School directors in June approved plans for a roughly $114 million project. Schematic designs for the renovations have been approved and an architect's update on the project is scheduled for next week.

Tim Frenz, the board's financial advisor, delivered a report last night that showed the current low interest rates make it financially advantageous for the district to issue the bonds soon.


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Monday, September 14, 2009

Bad to Worse at Mt. Lebanon School District

Last week, in connection with the speech by President Obama to the nation's schoolchildren, I noted some quiet criticism in Mt. Lebanon of the District's instruction that each classroom teacher should decide whether or not to show the speech in class.

In the wake of that post, a reader forwarded to me a copy of a message that Superintendent Dr. Tim Steinhauer sent to the "AllAdministrators" email list in the district, stating the District's policy. I didn't publish the text of the email, because I thought that this was one issue where I thought that the blog didn't need to fan any flames.

Well, I didn't have to fan them, because what Mt. Lebanon did was noticed anyway.

From Slap Heap, the weblog written by Chris Potter, the editor of the Pittsburgh tabloid weekly City Paper, comes this scathing commentary on Mt. Lebanon:

They don't call it the South Hills for nothing, I guess. Lately, every other week brings new evidence that Pittsburgh's prosperous suburbs are turning Dixie.

The Mt. Lebanon school district, you may recall, is one of those districts -- like my very own Upper St. Clair -- that decided not to let its students see President Obama's stay-in-school speech last week.

But guess what? According to KDKA-TV, just days later, Lebo did have an event in whch grade schoolers observed the anniversary of 9/11. And what did the personnel at Markham Elementary teach their kids?

[T]he lesson they teach on this day isn't so much a history lesson. It is more of a public service appreciation lesson.

Ha! Sounds like fascism to me! "Public service appreciation"? They have that in Red China. What next? An invitation to join the Young Pioneers? Or -- God forbid -- Americorps?

But the high point of the story is this:

The officers and principal said the lesson they most want the post-9/11 generation to learn about is respecting community service.

Right. Respecting community service. I know that's a real priority over there in Mt. Lebanon. Unless that service takes the form of being the President of the United States of America. In which case -- repeat after me, class -- f*** that guy.

Yikes. There is more, but you get the drift. I thought that this might be a little harsh, so I went back and re-read Dr. Steinhauer's email. In it, he does not say that the speech will not be shown. But the message he delivers is not subtle: he expects that there would be "very few instances" in which teachers would decide to show it.

Sometimes Mt. Lebanon seems to act as if the bubble is real, as if the rest of the world never watches and never notices what happens here. Is this one of those times? Because, of course, the world is watching and it does notice, and as a result of this business Mt. Lebanon comes off either as a bastion of righteous intolerance or as the home of a patronizing and self-absorbed elite. Or both. A generation ago - maybe even a decade ago - both characterizations were probably not far from the truth. Today, folks on both sides of the political aisle would like to believe that Mt. Lebanon has changed for the better.

The irony is this, as Pogo once said, more or less: We've met the enemy and he is us. Mt. Lebanon doesn't need this blog to point out its problems; if the world is watching it's because Mt. Lebanon residents are increasingly on top of things themselves. (Chris Potter, the author of the blog post, is an Upper St. Clair native, which means that he understands the Lebo psyche as well as almost any Lebo native.) I've heard from residents who are thinking about moving *out* of Mt. Lebanon because of the intolerance they detect in this episode. To them I say: Please stay in town, because the town needs you. The Post-Gazette ran a letter to the editor from a courageous high school teacher protesting Pittsburgh-area school districts' failure to show the speech. That teacher, David Molinaro-Thompson, lives in Mt. Lebanon, although he does not teach here. He needs you, too.

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The Lebo HS Soap Opera (and Bad Behavior) Continue

Next Monday -- Sept. 21 -- Tonight at 7 pm the Mt. Lebanon School Board and Celli-Flynn, the project architects, will meet with interested members of the public to share an "architect's update" on the high school renovation project. [Updated -- Sorry for any brief confusion about the date!]

Far more interesting, however, is the action outside the meeting.

Yesterday, I noted that Celli-Flynn had prepared a long letter to MTLSD Superintendent Tim Steinhauer responding to detailed criticisms of the current design submitted by Dirk Taylor, Lebo resident, structural engineer, and long-time MTLSD consultant. Today, a full copy of that letter has been posted to the High School Renovation website. Here's a link to that website; here is a link to the CF letter. The website also now includes copies of Dirk Taylor's letters to the Superintendent and the School Board.

All is not well here, however. I note two problems, which are the sources of my "bad behavior" characterization in the post title.

First: Would it have killed the District to have characterized Dirk Taylor's correspondence as "Letter from Mr. Dirk Taylor," rather than "Resident letter," which is what the site says? This strikes me as a patronizing trivialization of someone who has provided many, many hours of volunteer advising to the School District on this project as well as on others.

Second, and more important: The documents that the District has posted fail to include the key material! The CF letter makes no sense to anyone unless the reader can see the documents that CF was asked to respond to -- the material that I've characterized before as "the Taylor Report." Yet the District has failed to include those documents in the public record. Why?

[Updated 9/15/09: It now appears that the "Taylor Report" has been added to the High School Renovation website.]

Given the amount of money at stake and the expected life of a new building, the high school renovation process likely represents the best and perhaps last great opportunity for Mt. Lebanon to celebrate its commitment to community and to education for at least a generation. A well-managed design and planning process would, in the best of worlds, represent numerous opportunities for innovation, inclusion, and building good will. Whether or not the current design is changed at all -- and there is no evidence that it will be -- the secrecy and defensiveness of the current Board and the District's leadership means that an enormous pool of community good will is being squandered, rather than accumulated.

So that the record is clear, the Taylor Report is online, at this post.


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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Always Something Newsy Regarding the Lebo High School Renovation

The next "Architect Update" regarding the Mt. Lebanon High School renovation process will take place on Monday, September 21 in the current High School library, at 7 pm. According to the High School Renovation website, "An overview of the organizational layout of the new High School will be presented along with an update of the Plan Con process."

There is more, however. Remember the Dirk Taylor Report, criticizing the current plan for the high school? Remember Dirk Taylor's follow-up criticism? Celli-Flynn Brennan, the School District's architects on the project, have delivered an 8-page response, addressed to Superintendent Tim Steinhauer.

I have a copy of the Celli-Flynn letter (at this point, does it surprise any reader of this blog that correspondence on the merits of the high school project quickly find their way to my In box?), but I'm not planning to post it *unless and until* Dr. Steinhauer makes it public, the School Board makes it public, or someone who comes into possession of a copy under circumstances where no confidence is expected or anticipated (for example, perhaps a copy would be provided to Dirk Taylor, just as a courtesy?) gives me permission to do that. Or, someone *else* could post a copy online, and I could link to it. Of course, the School District maintains a High School Renovation website that would be a perfect venue for sharing this document. I am not holding my breath in anticipation of that happening.

On the merits of the letter from Celli-Flynn, suffice it to say that the architects are confident that their approach is the correct one, and they are confident that the community supports them.

So as not to leave you all in total suspense, here is something else. Dirk Taylor's efforts prompted another highly-respected Mt. Lebanon design professional, Dan Rothschild, to prepare and submit his own critique of the Celli-Flynn design. Dan sent his work to Dr. Steinhauer and the School Board and also sent copies to me with an invitation to post them. Given the length of time that passed between delivery of the Taylor Report and the response that was delivered recently, and the tenor of the response itself ("professional but dismissive" is my judgment), I doubt very much that the School Board or Dr. Steinhauer will take this stuff seriously. I wish they would; in a matter of a few weeks, Dan has dashed off a set of sketches and ideas that is more thought-provoking than anything I have seen in the Celli-Flynn schematics, years in the making. Officially, of course, the CF schematic designs are, at least as of June 2009, still subject to revision. So here are Dan Rothschild's comments:

09.09.09 Dr. Timothy Steinhauer

Rothschild Attachments

[A note for those who have difficulty with or choose to not access these materials on Scribd and would rather that I post them on some open public webserver: I accept your good faith, but anyone who sends me material for posting and anyone who reads that material here has to accept that I have limited time and limited resources; neither I nor this blog can be a public bulletin board! For all of its flaws, Scribd is widely-used, easy-to-use, and *free.* If you'd like to set up a superior alternative, I have no objection at all. Please hold your nose and find a way to log in to Scribd. Download the documents. Post them someplace else. Send me the links. Please!]

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"Come Together Lebo" Event

School Board candidate Rob Gardner knocked on my door the other day while he was out campaigning, and I volunteered to post information about an upcoming campaign event. This isn't an endorsement; if other candidates are holding similar events, we can post relevant information. The following is copied from Rob's and Jo's website,

Come Together, Lebo - A Bipartisan Celebration

Saturday, September 26

2:00 - 4:00
Bird Park Pavilion

Please join Mary Birks, Robert Gardner and Josephine Posti

Celebrate Mt Lebanon's proud heritage and promising future.
Bring your family.
Meet school board candidates.
Ask questions.
Learn how Rob, Jo, and Mary plan to move the District forward.

Get your face painted. Eat a Smiley cookie. Get a temporary tattoo. Finish it off with a cup of Rita's Italian ice.

Please join your friends and neighbors who are supporting this event:

Lee and Kim Adams
Kelly Bareford
Maureen and Hugh Beal
Torey and Dick Beuke
Mim Seidel and Dave Blaushild
David Brown
Elaine Cappucci
Dave Cochran
Brian and Sheryl Cohen
Chip D'Alesandro
Pete and Donna DiNardo
David and Lisa Borrelli Dorn
Ryan Estabrook
Susan and Ray Fretterd
Frank and Amy Gleue
Dan and Kathy Goff
Drew and Jennifer Haberberger
Chris and Barbara Helmeci
Heather Herbay
Arlan Hess
Barbara Kraft
Ninamary Langsdale
Dorothy Larotonda
Bob Lee
Linda and Rick Minnotte
Keith Mulvihill
Rob Papke
Dave and Marie Reese
Joe and Katie Rodella
Sue Rose
Leah Roth
Steve Silverman
Laurey Simkin-Silverman
Bonnie Van Kirk
Diane Wainwright
Brian Walters
Dr. Jennifer Kloesz and Dr. Al Wolf

Paid for by This Way Forward and the Committee to Elect Mary D. Birks.
RSVP by 9.21 to


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New Citizen-Led Mt. Lebanon Accountability Organization Launches

I am pulling the following note out of the comment thread at this earlier post and am putting it here, so that it gets more publicity. Once in a great while, online and blogosphere conversations actually lead to concrete, offline action that has real world consequences. Will this be one of those cases? Blog-Lebo reader and commenter Tom Moertel writes:

Here's an update for everyone following this story. Today, as planned, a number of residents met at Aldo Coffee to talk about our community and, in particular, what we can do to make it easier for residents to get involved in local government. We actually had more people show up than I had expected. (We eventually claimed 3 tables.) It was a fun bunch, and for about 3 hours we enjoyed great coffee, talked about our ideas, and started to form a plan to do something to improve our community.

During the meeting I explained my proposal to form a non-political citizens' organization that could serve as a community resource. The organization would do the work of clarifying, summarizing, and organizing the information produced by our local government so that residents (and policymakers) would have a one-stop, easy-to-use, reliable resource for understanding important community issues.

Toward that goal, I am setting up a web site to serve as the home for this new resource: the Mt. Lebanon Accountability Organization. (Until the site is ready, I have prepared a short introduction that tries to explain what the MLAO is all about.)

In the end, most attendees thought it was an idea worth pursuing and volunteered their support and assistance, but opinions varied on whether this organization -- or anything, for that matter -- could be an effective vehicle for government reform. In any case, everybody thought it was worth a shot.

If you're reading this and interested in joining us -- all are welcome -- please read the document I linked to above and send me an email (my address is in the document).

Finally, I'd like to thank all the people who took time out of their Saturday afternoon to attend the meeting or drop by: Thanks!

(Note: I am speaking here only for myself, and these comments reflect my impressions of the meeting. If other attendees want to add anything to my summary, please do.)


My comments: Thanks to Tom and everyone else who turned out on Saturday, and thanks to Aldo Coffee for enduring another impromptu Blog-Lebo related gathering!


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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mt. Lebanon Restaurant Damaged By Fire

A fire at Bravo! Cucina Italiana in Mt. Lebanon was quickly extinguished early this morning with damage primarily confined to the kitchen and the roof above it.

Mt. Lebanon Fire Department Lt. Loren Hughes said the call was received at 3:30 a.m. for the blaze at the restaurant located in the Galleria mall at 1500 Washington Road.


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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Another Letter From Dirk Taylor on the Lebo HS Renovation

Mt. Lebanon structural engineer Dirk Taylor has written another letter to Mt. Lebanon School District Superintendent Dr. Tim Steinhauer and the members of the School Board. Blog readers will remember that back in August, Mr. Taylor prepared a long critique of the current proposal for renovation/reconstruction of the Mt. Lebanon High School and submitted that material to the Superintendent and the Board.

Mr. Taylor authorized me to post his recent letter here. The letter follows:

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Meet the Mt. Lebanon Manager

The following message is making the email rounds and is also published on the Mt. Lebanon website, which means, I believe, that these events are open to all:

Good Afternoon!

Have "Coffee with the Manager" Meet Mt. Lebanon Municipal Manager Steve Feller over coffee at Uptown Coffee, 723 Washington Road, Tuesday, September 22 from 10 to 11:30 a.m. and from 7: to 8:30 p.m. Presented by the Community Relations Board and attended by several of its members, the meet-and-greet is your chance to ask questions, give an opinion or share an idea. It's the first of six informational chats with the goal of promoting transparency in government.

Future coffees will be:
Aldo Coffee, 675 Washington Road, Tuesday, October 20
Coffee Tree Roasters, 299 Beverly Road, Tuesday, November 17.

All coffees are 10 to 11:30 a.m. and 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Questions?? Please contact Laura Pace Lilly at 412-343-3552.



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Monday, September 07, 2009

My Favorite Mt. Lebanon Things, Continued

(Next in an occasional series of things I really like about Mt. Lebanon. Last time: Rollier's hardware store, especially its service desk.)

Occasionally, and against the advice of my orthopedic surgeon, you will see me jogging very slowly around Mt. Lebanon, continuing a habit that I first adopted well over 30 years ago. As most Mt. Lebanon walkers know, there is no better way to get acquainted with the town than by foot.

And what I learn about and like most about my Lebo wanderings are the old farmhouses that still stand here, nestled among the more recent stone and brick homes that most people associate with Mt. Lebanon.

The Historical Society of Mt. Lebanon can fill in all of us with the relevant details. For myself, I just like looking at homes here and there and imagining what they must have looked like before paved roads and power lines helped to create the town that we inhabit today. Even an amateur architectural historian like me can distinguish farmhouse styles from the designs of the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Doing that is a great way to participate in and remember Mt. Lebanon's early history.

Mt. Lebanon's farmhouses. Some of My Favorite Mt. Lebanon Things.


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The President Will Be Speaking ...

My second and last child has now graduated from Mt. Lebanon schools, so for blogosphere thoughts on what Mt. Lebanon decided to do with tomorrow's address to the nation's public school students by President Obama, I will quote Suburbia Calling, another Mt. Lebanon-based blog, written by the parent of a Lebo kindergartner:
The President of the United States would like to speak to school children this coming Tuesday and people, some people, are outraged? I'm left wondering what in the world are we becoming as a country? I'm the mom of a Mt. Lebanon kindergartner. According to a Jon Delano KDKA report, Mt. Lebanon has decided to allow each teacher the choice to show the President's address if it's relevant to what they are doing. Talk about being clever and slippery. I disagree with Mt. Lebanon's decision. ... make a firm decision would ya? It's wishy washy and sends a message to students that an address from the President of the United States to them is not necessarily might be might depends on well, well, which camp your teacher resides in!

Here is the whole thing.
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Happy to Be Ignored!

There is a comment at this post -- "Reforming Mt. Lebanon Government" -- that misses the point of this blog so self-righteously that it calls for a new post all its own.

In defense of the proposition that Mt. Lebanon's elected School Directors and Commissioners *should* ignore this blog, and the taxpayers who express themselves here, the commenter writes: "This blog has a certain entertainment value, like the comics or the horoscope, but certainly cannot be taken seriously."

If we get as much attention as the comics (ask the Danes) or the horoscope (Nancy Reagan brought an astrologer to the White House), then we're doing reasonably well. But here's the thing:

I long ago gave up any pretense that anything posted here would have much of an impact on the closeted "we're-in-power-and-you're-not" decisionmaking that characterizes Mt. Lebanon's two elected government bodies. I know for a fact that many of the municipality's senior staff and elected officials *read* the blog -- sometimes they call me and other commenters privately, and sometimes they email us privately -- but I also know that they are almost never willing to acknowledge that publicly. But that's OK. The posts and comments here say things that we think need to be said. Sometimes, posts and comments say things that some people think don't need to be said, or wish hadn't been said out loud. Reactions of both kinds are fair game, and they show up in the comments, too.

I'm fully aware of the fact that a relatively small proportion of Mt. Lebanon's adult population reads the blog. With a marketing budget of zero and a zero-effort marketing campaign, if we've reached 10% of Mt. Lebanon adults over four years solely by word of mouth, then we're doing pretty well. In fact, we're ahead of 10%. Last month we had more than 3,000 unique visitors and more than 28,000 page views. So that's OK, too. We don't reach everyone, but we reach a lot of people who care.

Among our readers are many of the most involved Mt. Lebanon volunteers; I know they care. Who else cares?

I know that the blog has an audience among prospective Mt. Lebanon residents, families with young children (I speculate about that, but with reason) who are deciding whether or not to buy a home here. Just about no one moves to Mt. Lebanon today just because of the reputation of the town and its schools. Just about everyone who moves to Mt. Lebanon today does research -- and that research includes a lot more than reading some back issues of mtl magazine or browsing the School District's website. I am not trying to discourage anyone from moving to Mt. Lebanon. Quite the opposite: I like it here, and I would like lots of people to move here. But I would like them to know that there is diversity of opinion in Mt. Lebanon about the past, present, and future of the town. Lots of people care, but they care in lots of different ways. And that is a *good* thing.

I also know that the blog has an audience among "traditional" media -- again, even if they are reluctant to acknowledge it publicly. Maybe a relatively small number of Mt. Lebanon residents read the blog, but a much larger number look at the Post-Gazette, the Trib, and Pittsburgh's television stations. Many reporters and editors at those organizations live in Mt. Lebanon, and they know about the blog. (Even some reporters and editors who *don't* live in Mt. Lebanon know about the blog.) The blog has an audience *outside* Mt. Lebanon, among ex-pats who are reading news about the town where they grew up, or where they used to live, or where their parents (or children) now live. It has an audience *outside* Mt. Lebanon among people in Pittsburgh and across the country who are watching the emergence of various forms of citizen journalism, non-professional writers who are bringing scrutiny to School Boards and town Commissions. Surprisingly to me, this blog was one of the very first town-specific citizen media websites in the Pittsburgh region.

Read the blog, get motivated by it, ignore it, laugh at it -- react as you will. Even treat it like you might treat the comics or your horoscope, as something to check every day. Tell the truth to yourself: You've *never* read a comic strip or a horoscope that didn't make you pause for a moment about your day or your life? Maybe Joe and I have made you pause from time to time, even if you disagree with us (especially me!). But Blog-Lebo isn't going anywhere.
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Saturday, September 05, 2009

Lebo Squeaks Past North Hills On 2-Point Conversion Stop

North Hills came one yard and one point short of overcoming a sloppy first game.

Junior quarterback Taylor Schmidt was stopped on the 1-yard line on a two-point conversion with 5 seconds left to play, and Mt. Lebanon pulled out a 17-16 nonconference win at North Hills' Martorelli Stadium.

Mt. Lebanon's Luke Alberts rushed 17 times for 132 yards to pace their victory. Mt. Lebanon wasn't perfect, but neither team was in the season opener.



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My Favorite Mt. Lebanon Things: A Start

The weather is gorgeous, Fall is almost here, and amid Sturm und Drang about the Mt. Lebanon School District, it's time to sit back and reflect on the good stuff.

Today, I'm starting a series on My Favorite Mt. Lebanon Things. This will not be a list of "The Best of Mt. Lebanon." It will not be a list of "What Makes Mt. Lebanon Special." There is no other shoe to drop, no list of things that I don't like. (I've posted about that list before.) It's just my list of things here in Mt. Lebanon that I really like. These won't come in any particular order. As you'll see, there may be more than one "favorite thing" of a particular type. And not all of my favorite Mt. Lebanon things are actually in Mt. Lebanon.

You likely have your own list, and in the comments, you're welcome to share your thoughts.

Today's starter:

The service desk at Rollier's hardware store.

In general, Rollier's is a wonder. It's a large, full-service, locally-owned traditional hardware store that manages to compete against Home Depot, Lowe's, big box garden centers, and chains of Ace, Busy Beaver, and True Value. Rollier's doesn't have their size or scale, and sometimes it won't have everything you need. (When I need lumber, I head to Brookside in Bethel Park.) But like many Mt. Lebanon residents, when I need a part or a tool, I'll head to Rollier's first, and often it's my last stop.

But the real magic of Rollier's is the service desk, still plugging away and offering magnificent value back by the plumbing department. Where I grew up, out in the San Francisco Bay Area, our town had a local hardware store that was a lot like Rollier's: hardware, tools, plumbing, bathrooms, housewares, and a garden department. And it had a great service desk. I remember how the staff would do calculations or add up your total on the brown paper spread out over the counter, and when the counter got too cluttered with numbers, a new sheet would be unrolled and taped down. But that was the '60s and '70s, long before the Big Box revolution. Back in my home town, the hardware store is still there, but now it's part of the Ace chain and, I'm pretty sure, the service desk is gone.

So Rollier's service desk is a magnificent throwback, and it's an indispensable one for all of us who own and maintain old houses. Our torn screens and broken hinges and plumbing parts don't always respond to the off-the-rack treatment that's the usual Home Depot way. A few years ago, one of the valves in my laundry sink broke. The gentleman at Rollier's literally built me a new one out of unrelated parts, and he charged me a very reasonable -- even modest -- amount of money. The valve still works fine.

Rollier's service desk. One of My Favorite Mt. Lebanon Things.


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Friday, September 04, 2009

Guest Post: Reforming Mt. Lebanon Government

Mt. Lebanon resident and Blog-Lebo reader and commenter Tom Moertel read my post yesterday titled "Lebo High School Renovation: A Status Update" and was moved to respond at length. Rather than leave his thoughts in the comments, Joe and I agreed that Tom's thoughts belong here, as a guest post.

The following, then, comes from Tom:

In Mt. Lebanon, there is a surprising lack of public participation in policy decisions that ought to be of great interest to the community. While some on Blog Lebo and elsewhere have characterized this apparent lack of concern as apathy, it is more likely the result of a deeper problem, a communications problem that makes public participation impractical for most residents. The ongoing planning process for the high school renovation is a perfect example of this problem.

The problem: The important stuff isn't getting communicated to the public

We residents of Mt. Lebanon may disagree about many aspects of the proposed high school renovation, but there is one thing we can all agree on: waste is bad. And if you examine the available evidence dispassionately, you are likely to conclude that the high school renovation, as proposed, will be wasteful.

That waste has three sources. First, we are proposing to build more high school than our community genuinely needs. Second, for what we are proposing to build, we are proposing to overpay. Third, for what we are proposing to pay, we are proposing to overpay, again, on the financing. (If you are unconvinced of any of these points, please share your answers to the questions I ask later.)

That we are proposing to do these things, and that more residents are not outraged, suggests that most residents simply do not understand what is going on. Why not?

It's a communications problem. With the exception of James Fraasch, our school board has not communicated about the essential considerations of the renovation project clearly or succinctly, and this failure is the root of our community's apparent apathy. Like Mike, I believe it is the school board's responsibility to encourage meaningful public participation in decisions about our schools. But the public cannot be expected to participate without having the information necessary to do so. If, then, the school board wants to fulfill its responsibility to the public, it must communicate clearly about what is really going on. And by clearly, I don't mean dumping data on a disorganized web site, and I don't mean tossing out details now and again at public meetings, where the details lack the context necessary for interpretation. I mean the board should publish and keep current an easily accessible distillation of the most important information about the project, and it should publish and keep current a concise, cogent argument for what it believes is the best plan to date. Only then will the public have the information it needs to participate meaningfully in discussions about the renovation project.

Instead, the information that truly matters is buried within a mountain of minutia, where the average resident has no hope of making sense of it. Consider the High School Renovation web site. To understand how unhelpful this web site is, try using it to find clear and complete answers to the most basic questions about the proposed renovation project:

Why do we need to renovate the high school? Why won't less-ambitious repairs suffice? Why do we need to pay this much for what we are getting? Are there no other reasonable options? If there are, what makes our chosen option better? By committing so much money to this renovation now, what resources will we be unable to afford later, and why does it make sense to forgo them for this renovation?

These basic questions are what most people ask themselves when contemplating any large purchase. Why, then, does the public lack a clear understanding of the school board's answers to, or at least thoughts about, these questions? Why aren't the board's answers front-and-center on the High School Renovation web site, where everybody could find them easily?

I do not mean to suggest that the members of the board are being coy about important financial matters. As far as I can see, the board members are all decent people, trying to do their best at a difficult, thankless job. If I am to fault the board, it is only for failing to perceive that the planning process was a confusion machine and that part of their duty was to overcome its effects and make sure the public understood what was really going on.

A proposal: do it ourselves

Whatever its cause, the problem exists: the job of communicating clearly with the public about important community decisions is not getting done. If we cannot count on our elected representatives to do this job, and if the news media have likewise proved ineffective at filling this void, what should we, as responsible citizens, do?

Here's what I think: We the People should take ownership of this problem. We should mine those mountains of minutia, extract the useful information, and place that information in context. Then We should communicate that information clearly and succinctly, directly to the public. In short, we should form a grass-roots "Mt. Lebanon Accountability Office" and start issuing reports on important community issues.

The effort would not be easy, and it would not be without controversy or challenges to its credibility. But it is within our reach. Heck, with the Blog-Lebo regulars, we have a head start on fact-finding and analysis. All we need are a little organization, an emphasis on clarification and presentation (think Edward Tufte or New York Times infographics), and then a touch of get-the-word-out (not all Mt. Lebanon residents live on Blog Lebo). Together, we could do something about our community's "apathy."

What do you think? Is the idea crazy, or is anybody up for discussing it over coffee, maybe getting something started?


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Thursday, September 03, 2009

Lebo High School Renovation: A Status Update

Regarding the proposed renovation/reconstruction of Mt. Lebanon High School, the following synthesizes what I've heard privately and what I've seen reported in signed comments on other posts on the blog:

The plan to rebuild the high school at a price tag of $115 million, plus additions, extras, overruns, and the usual costs to be determined later, is a done deal as far as the School Board is concerned. There is no plan to have further public input or further public discussion, whether that has to do with the Taylor Report, Republican Party-sponsored surveys, any other surveys, a referendum, blog posts and comments, or anything else. Fasten your seat belts and hang on to your checkbooks, everyone; here we go. I might be wrong about all this; if so, certainly the School District should speak up. Right now, however, plan for the worst but hope for the best.

It likely could not have been and would not have been otherwise, despite some handwringing on this blog and elsewhere. From the beginning, a clear majority of the Board has been unwavering in its commitment to building a big and fancy new building.

My invitation for the District and/or the Board to speak -- here or anywhere else -- is just that: an open invitation. What is weird now -- and what really stands out -- is the fact that the Board today is just silent, absolutely silent, on the question of the future of the high school and of the Mt. Lebanon School District. I'm synthesizing what I've heard; I am not reporting anything that the School Board or District has announced. (The only public decision by the Board was the vote back in June to proceed with planning for a $115 million-level project.) The only School Director who communicates regularly with the public on those questions is James Fraasch, who is well-known to everyone who pays attention to the high school issue as a leading critic of the $115 million plan and who is, I suspect, now widely ignored by his School Board colleagues.

Some current School Boards are running for re-election. Some are not. Both major political parties have submitted challengers for Board seats. I wonder whether the result of the school renovation process will play a role in the outcome of the election. Will people be surprised and angry that they've been handed a $115 million-plus bill? Or surprised and pleased that the board has decided to proceed wth a gleaming new building?

And how is that bill going to be paid, exactly? We still don't know. Where will this money come from? Remarkably, on this point the High School Renovation website is quite explicit: We'll build now and plan to figure out the financing later -- "in a few years" is the precise estimate.

A second weird facet of this outcome is the fact that the teachers themselves have been essentially silent about it. Dave Franklin's comments suggest that no one asked the teachers what they thought about the plans. I don't know anything myself about that. But I do think that if the renovation were going to really make teaching easier and better, we would have heard from teachers themselves that this is a good thing. They would be standing on their desks, cheering. But they're not. I'm inclined to think that the teachers would rather have the construction money, or a big chunk of the construction money, go into education (salaries, new staff, teaching materials). The current teachers' (MLEA) contract expires in June 2010. My guess is that the teachers are keeping their heads down over the high school and hope to be rewarded for loyalty next year.

There are lots of people in Mt. Lebanon -- not just a handful of School Directors -- who are perfectly happy to spend $115 million on a high school. There are other people in Mt. Lebanon who are perfectly happy to defer to the judgment of the elected School Board, even if they would have reached a different outcome on the merits. Obviously, I'm not in the first group. The high school needs a lot of work, but the town doesn't need to start over, and right now, I don't think that it can afford to. And in one of the few times that Dave Franklin and I may disagree somewhat, I'm not comfortably in the second group, either. The process by which the Board came to this conclusion has been so flawed, so opaque, and in many respects so hidden from the citizens of the town [we still don't know what the Board and the architects thought of the Taylor Report, for example] that I really wonder: Is the local, small-town democracy that we want? Or is this the local, small-town democracy that we're stuck with?

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State Education Department Releases PSSA Test Results

The state Department of Education today released the results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests for all public schools and districts, showing ones that made adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.

State Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak previously revealed that test scores increased in each grade level in reading and math, resulting in a record number of students scoring proficient or better on the exams given in grades 3 through 8 and 11 in the spring.

Today's release includes overall results for individual schools and districts, and the results for racial and economic subgroups, where applicable.

Link: Mt. Lebanon School District test results


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Questions Still Nag On Why Teen Got A Break

This is from an article by Mike Seate at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

I didn't know either the victim or the assailant, but the case involving two white Mt. Lebanon teenagers sure caught my attention.

Last week, Robertino DeAngelis, 17, was found guilty in juvenile court of attempted homicide, aggravated assault and unlawful restraint. The charges stemmed from an attack on his ex-girlfriend, Sarah DeIuliis, in October 2007.

It never was determined whether DeAngelis attacked the girl with a hammer as suspected, but the youth apparently had ill intent on his mind when the two set off for a walk in the South Hills woods that autumn day.


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