Tuesday, January 19, 2010

School Board approves Act 34 Document with $113-million renovation maximum

At the school board meeting of Monday, January 18, 2010, the Mt. Lebanon Board of School Directors voted 6 to 3 to approve the district's proposed Act-34 document, setting a maximum price on the high-school renovation: $113 million. Voting in favor were Directors Birks, Cappucci, Kubit, Posti, Remely, and Rose; against were Directors Fraasch, Ostergaard, and Stipanovich.

To accommodate the unusually large number of attendees, the meeting was held in the high school's Fine Arts Theater. At least two local-television news teams, KDKA and WPXI, attended the meeting and ran segments on the 11 o'clock news.

Many residents and taxpayers offered their comments and concerns. Most people stayed on topic, coming in for or against the $113-million price tag, stating their reasoning, sharing their stories. A few people made personal jabs, which didn't seem to help their cases much. For the most part, though, the comment period was surprisingly civil, given the tension that had built up in the days leading to the meeting.

All in all, both sides of the community got something. Those who supported the plan at its current price got to see it advance another step toward construction. Those who didn't, they got something, too. They finally got some indication that the board was listening. Instead of the 8-to-1 vote they expected, they got a 6-to-3 vote.

They got two more board members.

It's not a bad day when everybody gets something.

Read more:
Updated 2010-01-19 15:05 to add link to coverage on Real Lebo. —Tom
Updated 2010-01-19 23:26 to add link to coverage on Suburbia Calling. —Tom
Updated 2010-01-20 12:49 to add link to coverage on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette —Joe

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18 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I attended the meeting last night and really do not understand how school board directors could listen to the public comments, mostly of which were not in support of moving forward with the $113M potential price tag, and still vote to keep the ball rolling. This uncertain economic climate in conjunction with a lack of understanding as to what the actual cost of this project will be and the impact of those costs on our residents leave too many unknown variables for me to buy in. I liked what I heard Mr. Ostergaard say with respect to taking a more phased approach to the project, balancing our financial reality with the needs of our kids. I am in support of a renovation, but we need to be well aware of what we are getting in to. Much has changed since the plans for a renovation began. We all know about what has happened to retirement and college funds while I expect that taxes will go up anyway on all fronts, and yet the message from the board is “trust us to come in well under the Act 34 maximum high school cost”. I have yet to see any renovation project come in under budget and as far as I am concerned, approving the $113M ceiling produces a mental target budget. As the board stated last night, they received many letters over the past week, and it seemed to me the letters expressed concern about moving forward given the information about the project we currently have. Thanks to Mr. Fraasch, Mrs. Stipanovich and Mr. Ostergaard for listening to our residents. This amount is so close to a referendum vote that I would like to see one happen.
-Charlotte Stephenson

January 19, 2010 9:21 AM  
Blogger Dave Franklin said...

I thought last night was pretty interesting. A lot of people spent the night bashing James Fraasch for "fear mongering" etc, but in the end two more SB members also believed that a $113 million commitment was too much, right now. Also of note, nearly every SB member committed to spending significantly LESS than $113 million (heck, when Dan Remely was done I believed that someone was going to pay US to build the high school). I guess Mr. Fraasch wasn't so crazy after all.

I take the Board at their word that they will try not to spend $113 million and will make every effort to bring it in around $90-95 - I have no choice to do otherwise. However, I'd rather they give themselves some additional incentive NOW in order to do so. After all, how many projects ever come in that far below what the owner has agreed to spend. In fact, if it is going to happen, the SB needs to heed the advice of a few who spoke last night and find someone who can manage this project from within. I want Dr. Steinhauer to be worried about education, not lead times and change orders.

We all must stay involved too. This project won't conclude any time soon. Heck, the terms of 5 current board members will expire shortly after groundbreaking under the current schedule. We must be sure that if those 5 walk away (who could blame them, right?) or lose their bid for re-election that their replacements will be committed to the promises that were made last night.

Interesting times indeed. I came away with a more positive sense that the Board wants to do what most people are asking them to do, and that is encouraging. However, I think it is critically important that everyone stay involved. I firmly believe that Ms. Stipanovich and Mr. Ostergard "switched" their votes only after the flurry of emails and discussions with friends, neighbors and other stakeholders in the past week. As Joe pointed out yesterday, when 2 or 3 people speak up, they are nut jobs. When a bunch of people speak up it makes sense.

From the looks of it, the meeting on Feb. 22 is going to be a doozie. I've already talked to some people who think that last night was simply the appetizer in advance of that meeting.

One last thing - Mr. Fraasch, you have some serious guts. You knew that your concerns were not popular among your fellow board members or certain constituents. I have great respect for what you did this week. You knew damn well that your vote probably wouldn't matter in the end, and you could just have easily ignored these issues and made your personal/family life a heck of a lot easier. I'm not sure I could have contained myself while residents were calling me a fraud, a fear mongerer and comparing me the balloon boy hoax. However, you should take great comfort in knowing that a healthy majority of your constituents agreed with your concerns and showed up last night to say so. Many, many more who were not in attendance feel the same way. John Quincy Adams said "If your actions inspire others to learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." Clearly, by standing up, you caused a lot of people in this community to learn more, do more and hopefully become more. You should also take comfort in knowing that your colleagues (who earlier in the week called you names and suggested that you mischaracterized the facts) really didn't contradict you at all last night. Instead, everyone on the Board went to great lengths to acknowledge similar concerns and then publicly committed to try hard and meet our expectations. Well done, Mr. Fraasch. I'm sure you slept well last night.

January 19, 2010 9:29 AM  
Anonymous David Huston said...

I attended the meeting on 11-DEC-2009.
P.J. Dick's rep, the guy with the thick black mustache, stated project management is what the board hired them to do.
Rick Marciniak's duties will involve scheduling classes and students, turning on and off utilities so P.J. Dick can manage the project.
Until the board takes this control of this project using a third-party project mangager, the taxpayers will be at the mercy of P.J. Dick.
Was anyone on the board disturbed about this?

January 19, 2010 10:16 AM  
Anonymous David Huston said...

Whoops I meant 11-JAN-2010

January 19, 2010 10:55 AM  
Anonymous Bill Lewis said...

In the private sector, had a *not-to-exceed* project funding proposal been brought to a corporate board that had been given all other details about the project, the persons/dept. making the proposal and asking for its approval would have faced, among other things, the following board questions, considerations and instructions as part of the approval process :

1)disclosure & review of the source and bases of the costing information, and could it be confirmed by an independent 3rd. party;

2)what cost reduction/value engineering studies had been conducted, and whether the results of those studies were listed as possibilities with the costs being proposed...an intense discussion & review (they better had !)...and whether the cost estimators in 1)concurred;

3)a detailed review of each of the project contingencies...hard & soft cost related...their bases,justification and likelyhood;

4)if any of the 3 above had not been done, or done to the complete satisfaction of the board, approval would have been denied;

5)had the projects full or gross cost been $113 million prior to full disclosure & consideration of 2) and 3) above, and the board had signed off on 1) and learned that cost reductions might bring the project in at $90-$95 million and that there was an 8% built-in contingency, a private sector board might approve a not-to-exceed figure of $95-$100 million to take to the banks for financing.

One would hope that the school board would function, in their full fiduciary responsibility, in a similar fashion as would a private sector board, now prior to and following the Act 34 hearing, in making the not-to-exceed decision....except that upwards of 70% of the HS financing has already occured !

January 19, 2010 2:02 PM  
Blogger Bill Matthews said...

In yet another 11th hour change: On project forms with the PA Department of Education (PDE), the District is now basing its high school enrollment on 1,907 students (October 2007 actual). Until very recently, the project enrollment base was 1,805 students (October 2008 actual).

Looking at the DeJong Study, beginning next year, the District's projections show HS enrollment floating under 1,800. See page 13 of this document:
http://www.mtlsd.org/district/stuff/mtl_draftreport_partb_.pdf

January 19, 2010 2:48 PM  
Blogger Marjie said...

Did I hear correctly a dismal unemployment rate for the town? Can someone clarify that number if an official one is available.

January 19, 2010 3:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some information I picked up from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF).
This page has some intesting numbers:

http://www.reedconstructiondata.com/news/2009/09/rsmeans-dollars-per-square-foot-construction-costs-four-types-of-educationa/

Dean Spahr

January 19, 2010 4:09 PM  
Anonymous Bill Lewis said...

Was Sue Rose quoting an actual 2007HS enrollment of 1,907 students, or the Dejong Oct. 10, 2006 Background Report forecast for 2007of 1,913 students ? Dejong went on to forecast 2014 at only 1,674 students...also the 5th. year of the now oft-quoted 5 year millage increase forecast.

Did I also hear correctly last night that the now 470,000 sq.ft. HS will contain about 38% more space than would be required for the forecasted enrollment ?

And, what & where is the additional 30,000 sq. ft. that has been quietly added to what was supposed to be a 440,000 sq. ft. complex ?

So many questions, so few answers.

January 19, 2010 4:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Below is my letter to the Mt. Lebanon School Board. It remains my hope that thoughtful minds on all sides of this debate can find common ground. In my view, the high school does need to be renovated, but costs must be contained to keep it affordable to struggling taxpayers.
-- Jon Delano


Dear School Directors,

I have just returned from Harrisburg (covering the first day of the most recent Bonusgate trial), and I am still catching up on the School Board’s meeting on Monday night, which I obviously could not attend.

First, let me reiterate my thanks and appreciation to each of you for a difficult job. I want to single out Mary Birks, James Fraasch, Dale Ostergaard, Jo Posti, and Faye Stipanovich for giving me the courtesy of a personal response to my weekend emails. Whether we agree or disagree, I am grateful to every elected official who treats constituents with this kind of respect. I would still welcome, at any time, a personal response from other board members.

Second, I want to congratulate James, Dale, and Faye for the courage to stand up for economically strapped retirees and middle income families in Mt. Lebanon. Despite the public reputation, Mt. Lebanon is an economically diverse community with many hard-working residents and plenty of retirees who are struggling to make ends meet. I fear the majority of school directors may have lost sight of this. Certainly anyone who votes for a 10% to 14% tax hike this year has absolutely no appreciation of the realities of the economy on our family budgets.

Third, I gather from others who attended the Monday meeting that – and here’s perhaps a glimmer of hope – some of the six who voted for a $113 million (maximum) high school renovation project (with its projected unreasonable tax increases) believe that this project will, in the end, be closer to $90 million. While this is still rather high, I certainly appreciate any effort by the majority to reduce unnecessary spending. I want to congratulate any of the six who pledges to get this project down below that $90 million mark – especially as you reduce the tax burden for our homeowners. As some realtors have noted, double-digit tax increases not only drives good people out of Mt. Lebanon but makes our community an unaffordable place to live, thereby affecting the property values of all of us.

Fourth, is there any independent review of the costs of this project by engineers and architects who do NOT have a pecuniary interest in the outcome? It is only natural that those who want to build & renovate the high school will give the board the highest possible cost (short of the referendum requirement) because the more money you authorize the more money they make. This approach is backwards. In my view, the board should have set a dollar amount that is affordable to our taxpayers and said simply, meet it! The current approach reminds me of the standard Xmas Tree appropriation bill in Congress where one special interest group after another tacks on their favorite pet proposal to an already out-of-control spending bill.

Finally, let me reiterate my hope and belief that there is a reasonable compromise position between those who oppose any renovation that costs tax dollars and those who back the $113 million “Taj Mahal” high school. As the parent of two in the high school, I know the high school needs to be upgraded. As someone who grew up in Mt. Lebanon and has lived here most of my life, I also know that a double-digit tax increase imposes a great hardship on many in our community, especially when we already have among the highest school property taxes in the area. Thoughtful elected officials ought to be able to find the middle ground.

Thanks again for letting me share my views. I would welcome hearing yours. And, as always, let me know if you think there is some way in which I can be helpful in working for reasonable high school renovations that respect the hard-working families and retirees in our great community.

Warm regards,
Jon

January 20, 2010 1:00 AM  
Blogger Joe Polk said...

Folks -- you MUST use your full name in the posting (if you select the Anonymous option) or your Blogger profile must be public (and include your name on it) or we cannot approve your comments on this or any other posting on the blog.

Thanks for your cooperation!

January 20, 2010 3:20 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

For what it is worth, I applaud the gentleman who stood up Monday and told his story of the last 2 years and the 3 jobs he has lost. That story was the first story I told my wife when returning from the meeting. I thought what guts to sit there in front of 100 or so
people, in front of TV reports and on camera and to state publically
that he is on the edge. In all the debate, blogs postings, analysis
and even some chicanery, this has been the defining moment for me.
This was the reality of the decisions the board is making. This was the reality of their inability to compromise. This was the reality of what now seems to be arrogance and ulterior motives battling commmen sense and fiscal prudence. Statistically, with 100 people in that room (sample with n>30), there 150 or so more families like this man who or on the edge. 150 families, children, husbands and wifes that will be pushed over the cliff by a board that continues to appeal to the
community with a "Trust Me" attitude. I now feel that the 5-10minute prepared speeches by the board were the height or arrogance cloked in empathy for the plight of those such as that gentleman. We know now that the overwhelming majority of the community is against such exhorbitant spending in these financial times. Heck, any of you that have spoken with other residents realize this. Of all the businesses and neighbors I spoke to (40 or so) I only found 2 that are supportive of spending at any cost. All the data and all the common sense point toward fiscal restraint. Yet, what appears to be in the cards for the municipality is death by 1000 taxes. Where once were fields of cautious optimism are now the roots of disgust, anger and contempt.

Michael Andrascik

January 20, 2010 3:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

During Monday's meeting, I heard over and over again about the average home being worth $200,000. I started to think about my house. According to the Howard Hanna website, there are currently 226 properties listed. Seventy five of them popped up for $180,000 or less. Add another 20 houses, and that is the figure for houses listed at $200,000 or less. So before any tax increases go into effect, there are 95 properties on the market for $200,000 or less. Just an FYI, the most expensive property listed had an asking price of $949,000. So when I hear that the "average" house in Mt. Lebanon is worth $200,000, I get a little uncomfortable. Would people who could afford moving into Mt. Lebanon really be interested in my less than average priced home? And would real estate agents suggest a more "modestly priced" home to their clients, when they could afford something more expensive? I know for a fact that the school board heard similar stories like the one told at Monday's meeting, Michael. And we sit powerless watching it all happen. I want to thank Mr. Ostergaard, Ms. Stipanovich, and Mr. Fraasch for listening.
Elaine Gillen

January 20, 2010 5:31 PM  
Anonymous Liz Huston said...

I'm having a flashback to when the city of Pittsburgh insisted that we wanted a new baseball stadium for the Pirates. The city voters voted in the election that they did not want a new baseball stadium which they were going to have to ultimately pay for. They said, "Oh, you want it. You just don't know you want it."

Fast forward to Mt. Lebanon now where people are telling those in charge that we can't afford this and maybe it's not a great idea right now. Six board members are pretty much telling us, "Oh, you want it. You just don't know you want it."

Well, the Pirates are still at the bottom of the heap in the standings, and in Mt. Lebanon, our enrollment is still declining. Sound familiar to anyone?

January 21, 2010 10:14 AM  
Anonymous John Ewing said...

This link gives the construction cost per sq. ft. to build a high school in Pittsburgh:

http://www.reedconstructiondata.com/news/2009/09/rsmeans-dollars-per-square-foot-construction-costs-four-types-of-educationa/

This Reed Construction cost data is similar to the Means construction cost data released last year.

$151.47 was the Sq. ft. cost to build a High School in Pittsburgh in 2009.

$151.47 times 470,000 Sq. ft. = $71,190,900, for ML’s High School.

Mr. Fraasch’s support of a $75,000,000 high school is closer to reality than Mr. Remely’s $90,000,000 pledge.

Remely and Cappucci owe our community a reconciliation of the difference between $71,190,900 and $113,000,000.

I want to see the math justifying the $41,809,100 extra spend !

January 21, 2010 1:27 PM  
Blogger Marjie said...

Elaine,

As of tonight there are 233 listings for Mt Lebanon on the Howard Hanna site (which includes all multi-listings but not for sale by owner sales. It will be interesting to see how and if this number moves dramatically.

January 21, 2010 5:57 PM  
Blogger Bill Matthews said...

I learned today that the 11th hour change in current enrollment used on the recent PDE forms was initiated by PDE in compliance with their procedures. The change was not initiated by the District.

As posted earlier, the current enrollment was raised to 1,907 (now) vs 1,805 (previously). Actual enrollment today is slightly over 1,800.

While this is good for state reimbursement, it also masks potential inefficiencies of the project.

At 1,907 we have 59,641 sq ft of scheduled area more than the PDE "Recommended Scheduled Area"

At 1,805 we would have 68,377 more than the PDE "Recommended Scheduled Area"

I get that it is entirely appropriate to have some number of thousands of square feet more than PDE "recommended" -- but 68,377?

If some of this could could be skinny'd down -- maybe 17,000 sq ft (about 25% of the 68,377), the project could save $3,400,000 (plus $2,000,000 in interest expense).

This would also get us closer to the anticipated 440,000 sq ft building many thought we were building.

The only problem is the time to do this was in the Design Development Review, which the Board blew through in nothin' flat -- not the Construction Drawing Phase where we are today.

January 21, 2010 9:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I refined my search on the Howard Hanna multilist website to only show single family homes and found the number to be 173 listings in Mt. Lebanon. This change does not include lots or townhouses. I did find a glitch on the website because buried in the listings around 100,000, the most expensive property listing is $1,295,000, not $949,000 as shown at #1.
Elaine Gillen

January 22, 2010 8:42 AM  

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