Last night I attended the Community Forum on the renovation of the Mt. Lebanon High School facility, sponsored by the School Board and featuring a brief presentation by the project architects, the construction manager, and the Superintendent on the design options and the likely costs. The presentation lasted about an hour; questions and comments from residents lasted nearly two and one half hours. We started at 7 pm and finished around 10:30 pm. I didn't do a head count, but I estimate that there were about 150 people in the audience when the forum started. That's an impressive turnout in cold, snowy weather.
The whole thing was recorded and, I assume, broadcast on the School District's TV channel. Live satellite versions of the forum will be enacted three times next week, on January 20, 21, and 22 at Markham (Jan. 20), Howe (Jan. 21) and Jefferson (Jan. 22) schools, each one at 7 p.m.
I am optimistic that a copy of the slides presented will be posted to the High School Renovation blog
. When that happens, I may try to update this post with some specifics and numbers.
Some reflections on and reactions to what I heard last night:
One -- The construction numbers have been revised upward, compared to the numbers that were shared with the community last night. Still, not all of the costs of the project -- in any form -- have been rolled into the big, red "this is what each option will cost." The most expensive and elaborate alternative presented last night would cost roughly $150 million dollars -- and then some. The least expensive alternative presented last night would cost roughly $100 million dollars -- and then some.
Two -- So long as the questions and comments focused on big themes, such as "we need to do what's best for this great community and our children, and that's why I live in Mt. Lebanon," then there seemed to be broad support for the most elaborate and expensive option. Lots of the speakers were parents of current or future high school students. Lots of the speakers shared anecdotes about inadequacies of the current facilities. There was lots of applause.
Three -- The tenor of the comments and the tenor of the reaction changed when some speakers pointed out that the presentation omitted important and useful information, and when they and other speakers focused on certain details of the proposals. In broad outline a big project seems like a good idea; up close, there is skepticism.
For example, the two most expensive alternatives both include spending roughly $25 million for comprehensive repair and renovation of "Building B," which the community recognizes as the charming old building with the long facade on Cochran Road. However, that renovated building would *not* be used as part of the educational program of the new high school. Part of it would be used for administrative offices for the district; the rest would simply be available for community use or could be rented out to other organizations. Several residents noted -- to broad applause again -- that the point of the project is to acquire a first-class educational facility for the students. Chopping $25 million from the top-end budget, and simply demolishing the old building and reusing the land, would be far, far cheaper and achieve the same educational result as the top-end alternative. School Director Dan Remely argued that this is simply not an option. He said that the high school alumni and the Mt. Lebanon Historical Society have made it clear to the board that any project that did not involve protection of Building B would be blocked. I suspect that this point in particular will be discussed and reviewed in subsequent community meetings, and elsewhere. (Update, Jan. 15 at 4:15 pm:
I've heard from several people by email that Dan Remely should have referred to the Mt. Lebanon Historic Preservation Board, which is part of the Municipality, and not to the Mt. Lebanon Historical Society, which is not. Please note a Comment to this post from M.A. Jackson, who is president of the Historical Society.)
For a second example, several speakers pointed out that the educational program on which the architects are relying has not been specified in sufficient detail for the community to assess its reasonableness. There were lots of references last night to an educational program of roughly 440,000 square feet, but there was little detail regarding how that figure was arrived at or how different elements of 440,000 square feet translate into $150 million or any other figure. When the request for that information was made -- apparently renewing requests for that information that have been made before -- the architects (again?) agreed to provide it. There was applause on that point.
For a third, final, and probably most important example, that portion of the presentation that focused on tax increases was missing a lot of detail. (Just to be clear on this initial point: There is unanimous agreement that everyone's taxes will go up under any of the construction options presented.
) The presentation included one slide that listed the millage increases and the monthly dollar tax increases that would accompany projects of different scales. The implication of the slide was clearly that this isn't a lot of money, if you break it down on a monthly basis. I'll try to put up specifics later, but the maximum figure was a dollar increase of "only" $100 per month for the owner of a home assessed at $300,000. That would be for the $150 million project.
There are at least two problems with looking at the numbers that way.
One is that it was not explained *how* the construction costs translate into specific millage increases. There was some discussion of interest rates in the bond market and a great deal of reliance by the presenters (District Finance Manager Jan Klein in particular) on the District's "financial advisors." (I assume that these include Moody's Iinvestor Service.) It appeared to some commenters that according to the slide, at higher levels of construction cost, one mill of tax increase was buying more construction dollars than one mill would buy at lower levels -- leading to the suspicion that the real tax increase would be larger than the presentation suggested. (That's always a suspicion, at any level of government and for any new program.)
Two is that the presentation's numbers have a more substantial impact when read differently.
I ran a quick mental calculation of my own tax bill based on the numbers I saw last night.For the $150 million project, my school taxes would go up by at least 20%. And that's a long-term, effectively permanent increase.
One commenter asked if taxes would go down when the bonds are paid off (25 years in the future), and everyone laughed. We know how this works. And don't forget the other tax increases that are clearly coming. The School District is facing large pension liabilities in a few years, and eventually the Municipality will come asking for money to pay for sewer repairs.
Four -- Only a couple of speakers made what I regard as an obvious point: The goal of this entire project is *not* to build a beautiful new building. The goal is to ensure that the children of Mt. Lebanon have a rewarding and challenging education. When any of us focuses too much on accomplishing that goal solely by reconstructing the building (and/or solely by focusing on constructing facilities that enable "21st century education," whatever that is), we miss both an essential point and we also miss an enormous opportunity.
I've written about this before on the blog and won't repeat the whole thing here. The basic point is this: It is possible to have a first-rate building but to house a second-rate education. It is possible to have a first-rate education in a second-rate building. The best of all worlds is to have a first-rate education in a first-rate building. But we do not live in the best of all worlds.
Five -- Director James Fraasch has proposed and Director Mark Hart supports a different approach, involving relatively minor spending now to fix the most dramatic problems and postponing major work until the District's finances are more stable. At last night's meeting, there was very little support for that approach. But it is also evident that the Board is aware of at least one other option, closer to the $110 million number, that was not presented last night. During the presentation this was referred to as "Alternative 4," and the architects insisted that there are no drawings or programs for it. The coyness of the response and the fact that "Alternative 4" was mentioned on the slides suggests that this is something that the Board has discussed, and with good reason: It would involve recognizing some real-world politics that surround the project. The Board may eventually be confronted with the fact that it has a certain amount of money to spend ($110 million? $150 million?) and then have to decide what to do with that money. The current approach, which involves selecting a bunch of features, then seeing what the cash register says, may not be politically sustainable.
What would Alternative 4 look like? After the meeting I heard some speculation that it would involve a major new building (possibly situated on the upper athletic field, next to the parking lot), then demolition of the problematic Building C (the newest of the current crop, which houses Centre Court), perhaps with minor renovation of the Fine Arts complex. That's not a complete picture, but it's quite different from anything that was presented last night.
Six -- Where do we go from here?
Under relevant state law, any construction budget of $110 million or more means that the School Board cannot authorize borrowing all of that money without going to the residents of Mt. Lebanon in a referendum. $110 million is a kind a magic number in that sense, and there is no prospect that it will go up (it might go down). My read of last night's meeting is that there is a lot of support in the community, as well as on the Board, for spending more than $110 million. So it is likely that a public vote is on the horizon.
There are at least three things to note about a referendum, all of them direct and pragmatic:
One is that the School Board will have to pick a project, specify that project in much more detail than we saw last night, and put a dollar number on that project. Will the citizens be asked to vote on a $150 million project? A $120 million project? Something else? The specifics of the proposal likely will not bind the District once the election is over. But if the referendum passes, the District will end up with a fixed amount of money, and then it will have to decide how to spend it. Before the referendum, the Board will simply have to decide how much money to ask for.
Two is that there is no gurantee that a referendum will pass. There is no precedent for this exercise here in Mt. Lebanon. A majority of taxpaying households in Mt. Lebanon do not have school-age children. Lots of those people will support a referendum on the ground that a new school is good for the community and good for their property values. But lots of those people, and even lots of people who *do* have school-age children but evaluate the costs and benefits here differently, will vote "no."
Three is that whether or not a referendum passes, the process of going through a referendum will be painful, and it may impose some long-term costs on the community. This being an election, and it being unlikely that everyone will simply raise their hands and agree to pass the proposition, it is likely that a "No on the Referendum" group will be organized. With a website, and signs, and volunteers, and coffees and all the usual trappings. Think about the arguments that will be offered. Even if it doesn't get ugly, it will get tense and unhappy, and the tension and unhappiness will likely persist even once the vote is taken.
At the conclusion of last night's meeting, Director Elaine Capucci encouraged residents to continue to voice their comments and opinions about the project, by attending one of the future Forums (see above), by emailing the members of the Board, or by posting comments at the High School Renovation blog
. There was no reference to this blog (though I never expect any!).
I know that members of the Board read what is posted here. I'm sure that I've missed some things about the meeting, and I'm sure that some people will disagree with my characterizations of others. Fire away, but as always, include your name.
Labels: high school renovation