Thursday, June 30, 2011

WTAE: Lisa Styles Memorial Run Held In Mt. Lebanon Mom's Honor

Hundreds of people came to the Lisa Clay Styles Memorial Run and Walk in South Park. Styles was struck in Mt. Lebanon by a driver who's accused of being under the influence. Runners raised money for the Watson Institute's LEAP Preschool in her honor.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Crane Accident Halts Port Authority 'T' Service In Mt. Lebanon

Service to the Port Authority's light rail "T" line was partially shut down Monday night when a construction crane crashed into a truck inside a tunnel in Mt. Lebanon.

Mt. Lebanon Fire Chief Nick Sohyda said the unattended crane drifted about 2,200 feet on the rails of the tunnel before crashing into a contractor's pickup truck.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Trib: Mt. Lebanon chooses commissioner to fill Raja's seat

The Mt. Lebanon commissioners appointed Chatham University trustee Bonnie VanKirk tonight to fill the seat vacated by Allegheny County executive candidate D. Raja, promising her a busy six months before the term is up.

"I'd like to say it's going to be fun-filled, but it's going to be difficult," said board president Dan Miller.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Trib: Applicants for Raja's Mt. Lebanon seat disclosed

The Mt. Lebanon board of commissioners released the names of the applicants for D. Raja's 1st Ward seat this week, and will interview candidates on Monday.

Applicants include T. Michael Brown, Frank Horrigan, John Bendel and Bonnie VanKirk. Commissioners will interview candidates starting at 6 p.m. June 20 in the commission chambers

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Trib: Mt. Lebanon man could get 10 years for sex with 14-year-old

A Mt. Lebanon man will spend up to 10 years in prison on charges he kidnapped and sexually assaulted a 14-year-old Fayette County girl while he was awaiting sentencing for indecently assaulting a 15-year-old girl in Irwin.

Richard M. Sabatasse, 27, on Monday pleaded no contest to charges of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, interference with the custody of children, statutory sexual assault, corruption of minors, indecent assault and providing alcohol to a minor.

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WTAE: Mt. Lebanon Mom Remembered Through Memorial Race, Walk

It has been nearly one year since Mt. Lebanon mother Lisa Styles was hit and killed by a vehicle while walking with her young children in a stroller.

But those who knew and loved her most, and even those who were just touched by her story, have come together to organize a fundraiser in her name.

“She was energetic. She was loving. She was a doting mother. She was ... she was the best person I've ever met,” her husband, Brett Styles, told Channel 4 Action News’ Ari Hait.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

High-school update shows progress but also confusion and hard realities (Updated 2)

Update 2011-06-15 15:00: add more links to media coverage.

Update: another briefing on the high-school project is scheduled for next week at 6:30 pm, before the regular school-board meeting on Monday, June 20, 2011. The meetings will be held in the high-school library.

Before last night’s school-board meeting, there was another update from the architect and construction manager on the effort to reduce the price of the high-school project. The meeting was scheduled to run for 30 minutes; it ran for about two and a half hours.

There are too many details to recount; if you want them, listen to the meeting recording over at Lebo Citizens. But here are some interesting things I observed.

First, there is evidence of progress: a list of about 200 options for reducing the project’s cost. I think I heard it said that the list represents a potential $14-million savings. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that there is evidence that something’s not adding up. School director Dan Remely noted that the project’s cost per square foot is still unusually high. Even with the proposed savings, we’re only saving a couple of dollars per square foot, he noted.

The project was originally estimated at about $185/sq-ft but the actual bids put it at about $220/sq-ft. This graphic, which I prepared in January, 2010, shows how unusually high $220/sq-ft actually is. In short, 90% of similar projects from 2008 cost less than $150/sq-ft. Our project costs that and nearly half again more.

Further, School director Ed Kubit shared some of his back-of-the-envelope calculations and said that, if the proposed cost reductions were accepted and had their intended effect, their savings would just reduce the project’s cost to the previously declared maximum of $113 million – if applied to the lowest bid we got in April. He pointed out, however, that we might not see bids that competitive in the next round of bidding. The margin for error was slim.

One thing that concerned me was that head architect Tom Celli “urged” the school board to consider switching from single to multiple prime contracts. The general understanding is that this switch would reduce the construction bids – making it more likely that a bid or two would squeak under the maximum – but, ultimately, cost the community more during actual construction. Most school directors, thankfully, seemed to be skeptical if not resistant to this advice.

Another thing that concerned me is that it wasn’t clear what effects all these proposed changes would have. School director Lawrence Lebowitz said that he was concerned about “what is coming out” of the project. Other directors echoed his concern, saying that they didn’t even know what the exterior of the building was going to look like any more. The architects said they could furnish “elevations” to help the school directors visualize the changes, but a 3D computer rendering would take too long to prepare.

If you’re getting the picture that nobody seems to have a handle on these changes, you’re seeing what I’m seeing. Some directors see it, too. I heard at least two say that the timeline for considering changes was too fast. They felt rushed and were concerned that, if they had a hard time keeping up, the public was probably even further behind. Two directors said that there ought to be a public forum to make sure the community understands what the changes would mean. This idea, however, was not universally celebrated.

Even so, I urge the school board to set a time and place to tell the community definitively what the revised project includes (and doesn’t) and how much it’s expected to cost. I follow these things more closely than most residents, and I have no idea what the project now represents. (If you’re on the school board and believe that you’ve kept the community up to date, please believe me when I say that, from out here, we have no idea what’s going on.)

So there you have it: progress but also confusion. And, as I predicted earlier, it looks very much like, compared to what the community was told to expect for the project, we must now pay more and get less.

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Friday, June 10, 2011

What Mt. Lebanon can learn from school projects in poor countries

NPR’s Planet Money podcast is always fascinating, but Tuesday’s episode, “Poor Economics”, ended with an unexpected bonus: a short discussion with MIT economists about whether investments in school facilities pay off in poor countries. Because our community, though far from poor, is about to devote a giant chunk of its increasingly scarce educational dollars to a single facilities project – the high-school renovation – it’s worth considering what we can learn from the economists.

Research in the developed world suggests that investments in school facilities have little effect on student outcomes. Once you place students in a building that’s safe, sound, and adequate to the needs of learning, spending more on that building doesn’t seem to make much difference. Diminishing returns set in quickly.

But what about building a school facility for a poor community that doesn’t already have one? Surely, that would be the community’s best way of helping its students, right?

That’s what the economists were asked. Their answer might surprise you.

The scenario was this: There’s a community in Haiti that the Planet Money crew visited while covering the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. While there, they met the principal for the local school district and learned that his students didn’t have a school building. They had most of their classes behind a church, under a palm-frond roof, next to an outhouse. When it rained, they got wet. They lacked textbooks and other necessities. It was pretty miserable.

When the Planet Money listeners heard about the students’ plight, many sent donations, which soon reached $3000. The principal, overjoyed with the unexpectedly large outpouring, said he wanted to build a school with the funds, and one listener, a construction expert, flew to Haiti and said he would help build it. But, when he got there, he discovered that it would cost closer to $80,000 to build. (It seems that estimating construction projects is hard everywhere.)

At this point some other listeners wrote to Planet Money and asked, If the $80,000 could be raised, would it be best spent on a building – or other things? And that’s what the economists were asked. Here’s the exchange. (If you’re listening to the episode, it starts about 21 minutes in.)
Planet Money: The principal and the community say they want a school [building], so I’m inclined to trust them. Do you have any advice on this kind of thing? Let’s say they had $80 thousand. Is building a school the right thing? Is there any advice you can give us?

Abhijit Banerjee (MIT economist): Generally the evidence from economics is that brick-and-mortar expenses are less useful than improving teacher quality. There’s a fair amount of evidence that seems to suggest that, even with fairly poor infrastructure, if you had a teacher who was excited about teaching, and the materials were appropriate to the children, and the teacher focused on teaching the child in his class instead of the “ideal child” who doesn’t actually exist there, I think you get a very good education, even when the infrastructure is extremely poor. That’s my two-minute summary of the literature.

Esther Duflo (MIT economist): One thing to add, we’ve worked with a lot of schools, in Kenya in particular, and people always want [buildings], especially principals. From their own point of view, that makes a lot of sense: they have to work in the schools, which are often quite unpleasant... People [in leadership positions] always like to provide bricks and mortar because it’s something that looks tangible. The people who receive the bricks and mortar are very happy, [too]... but things that are more like “the software” – what are you going to teach, how are you going to teach it, who is going to teach it, what are the incentives that are given to the parents, to the teachers, to the students – are actually probably cheaper [ways] to achieve [results], but less photogenic. Which is why it’s important to focus on what’s going to make the most difference, without being influenced by whether it’s the most photogenic.
(The whole episode, by the way, is fascinating. If you have 30 minutes, it’s worth a listen.)

Of course, schools in Haiti and Kenya are not schools in Mt. Lebanon. But the interview offers two insights that are probably general enough to apply everywhere, even here.

First, when it comes to education, the diminishing returns from investments in bricks and mortar seem to diminish rapidly. In some cases, even if you get the money to go from zero to a new school building, you’re better off, educationally, not buying the building but investing the funds in other things.

Second, the payoffs for decision-makers and students are different. Community leaders have a strong incentive to invest the community’s resources in things that are highly visible, such as bricks and mortar, but those investments are not necessarily the best way to help students.

Now, I’m not suggesting that our planned renovation is just eye candy. But I do think it’s worth asking whether we wouldn’t be better off with a less-expensive renovation that conserves more of our educational funding for education. The evidence seems to point toward the conclusion that you get the best education when you spend on buildings what you must – but no more – and save the rest of your funding for things that help students more.

When it comes to school buildings, apparently, less is more.

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Thursday, June 09, 2011

P-G: Raja got one too many tax exclusions

A homeowner in Allegheny County may receive a homestead exclusion for only his or her primary residence. For two years, D. Raja, the Republican candidate for Allegheny County executive, received the tax reduction on two residences.

His campaign said the error was the result of a miscommunication with his accountant and construction problems that had delayed his moving plans. His accountant filed the papers with the county to remove the homestead exclusion from one of his residences on Tuesday, said Mark Harris, Mr. Raja's campaign strategist.

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Trib: Track to be installed in Mt. Lebanon rail tunnel

The inbound side of the Mt. Lebanon rail tunnel will be closed from Thursday night through Tuesday morning so crews can install new track, the Port Authority of Allegheny County said.

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P-G: PIAA Lacrosse: Mt. Lebanon loses semifinal

If only goals in the final minute or so of each half were counted, the Mt. Lebanon boys lacrosse team would have earned a spot in the state final.

But since they are not, the Blue Devils were on the wrong end of a lopsided result and saw their season end Tuesday.

Philadelphia Catholic League power St. Joseph's Prep throttled WPIAL champion Mt. Lebanon, 15-5, in a PIAA semifinal game at Penn State.

St. Joseph's Prep (19-4) advanced to play defending champion Conestoga (24-1) Saturday in the championship game.

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P-G: Teen in hammer attack barred from Mt. Lebanon this summer

The teen adjudicated delinquent for attacking his ex-girlfriend with a hammer will have to find a new place to live this summer.

Allegheny County Judge Kim Berkeley Clark has asked the family of Robertino DeAngelis to come up with an alternative living arrangement for the summer instead of staying with his parents in Mt. Lebanon.

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P-G: Prescription drug sweep nets 19

Editor's note: Congratulations to Chief Coleman McDonough and the entire Mt. Lebanon Police Department for their work on this major drug bust.

A two-year, multi-agency investigation has resulted in the takedown of what U.S. Attorney David Hickton called "the largest and most sophisticated prescription drug ring" to ever operate in Western Pennsylvania.

Flanked by Special Agent Gary Davis of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and various local police chiefs who assisted with the investigation, Mr. Hickton announced on Wednesday that 19 individuals will be charged with conspiring to distribute and possess oxycodone, a prescription painkiller in the opioid family that has become highly popular in recent years.

The outfit was so advanced, Mr. Hickton explained, because its operatives were able to use computer software to design realistic-looking prescription templates. Led by Jefferson Hills resident John Paul Larcinese, they then obtained DEA registration numbers for doctors who prescribe painkillers, giving the ring the ability to present prescriptions that appeared legitimate, Mr. Hickton said.

The ring recruited "runners," who would travel to pharmacies, obtain oxycodone prescriptions and then turn the pills back over to Mr. Larcinese, who would pay them in either cash, oxycodone or both.

According to the indictments handed up Tuesday, the ring was in operation from February 2009 to June 2010.

The scheme began to unravel when Mt. Lebanon detectives received information about phony prescriptions being used in pharmacies there. Soon after, a detective received a tip that Mr. Larcinese was in the area of one of the pharmacies.

After a brief foot pursuit, he was apprehended and the investigation launched, explained Mt. Lebanon Police Chief Coleman McDonough.

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P-G: Bids come in high for Mt. Lebanon veterans memorial

Bids for the construction of a veterans memorial in Mt. Lebanon came in substantially higher than expected today.

But the municipality is still committed to building and dedicating the memorial by Memorial Day 2012, said Dan Miller, a Mt. Lebanon commissioner who has been involved in the project.

The estimated cost of building the memorial was about $200,000, and a fund-raising drive over the last year has raised about $197,000, of which $27,000 went to fund-raising and planning costs, said Susan Morgans, the public information officer for Mt. Lebanon.

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P-G: Mt. Lebanon graduate Steranka chosen in MLB draft

In Jordan Steranka's profile on the Penn State athletics website, he states that his goal after college is "to continue to play baseball as long as I can." The Mount Lebanon graduate is going to get that opportunity.

The Houston Astros selected Steranka, a left-handed hitting third baseman, in the 30th round of Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft on Tuesday. He was third in the Big Ten with 57 RBIs this spring while hitting .323 and belting eight home runs as the Nittany Lions went 32-22.

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Monday, June 06, 2011

Trib: Mt. Lebanon stomps by Sewickley Academy

Nate Relich scored five goals to lead Mt. Lebanon past Sewickley Academy, 11-5, in the quarterfinals of the PIAA Division I boys lacrosse playoffs Saturday.

Bijan Firouzan and Doran Graham scored two goals each for Mt. Lebanon (18-3), while Firouzan had four assists and Graham had one assist.

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Trib: A smokin' hot June is on tap for Mt. Lebanon native

Mt. Lebanon native and certified hottie Joe Manganiello (winner of the the Cause You're Hot award at the recent NewNowNext Awards) is set to heat up the small screen this summer.

The actor, who plays werewolf Alcide Herveaux on HBO's "True Blood," says he'll be continuing to show off his fab physique when the new season debuts June 26.

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Friday, June 03, 2011

WTAE: Evacuation Ordered In Mt. Lebanon After Gas Line Ruptures

Allegheny County 911 dispatchers said a Mt. Lebanon street was evacuated because of a gas leak.

Dispatchers said a crew working with a backhoe hit a gas line in the 600 block of Washington Road on Friday morning.

However a spokesman for Equitable Gas said crews determined the problem was actually a leaking pipe inside restaurant.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Almanac: Mt. Lebanon breaks ground for vets memorial

A soft breeze stirred the top of the pine trees at the entrance to the Mt. Lebanon Park early on Memorial Day morning as about 200 people gathered for the official ground breaking ceremony for the Veterans Memorial.

The memorial, for which bids will be opened June 6, will be dedicated to all Mt. Lebanon veterans who served their country. Completion is expected in about a year.

Memorial Day was especially poignant for District Judge Blaise Larotonda. His two children are currently serving in the military. His daughter recently returned from a tour in Iraq with the U.S. Navy; his son is with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.

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Early predictions for the school board election give Cannon 4-to-1 odds (Update 2)

Updated 2011-06-02 11:30 to clarify that, for the predictions, “cross-file” means “cross-file and then succeed in the primary to get both parties’ nominations.” —Tom

Updated 2011-06-02 18:13 to revise predictions after fixing a data-entry error that said Cooper had won both Democratic and Republican nominations in the primary. (He won only the first.) As a result of the change, the models give Cooper lower chances of winning a seat, with the difference being distributed to the other candidates and improving their chances. Cannon’s odds, for example, are now increased to 6-to-1 for winning a seat. —Tom

Let’s take a look at the recent primary election and see what it says about the race for the school board. This year, five seats are up for election, and six people are running for them. That means when the music stops playing, somebody is going to be left without a seat.

Of the candidates, three already have seats on the school board (Elaine Cappucci, Lawrence Lebowitz, and Edward Kubit), and three are newcomers (James E. Cannon, William Cooper, and Scott Goldman). Of the newcomers, the latter two have been endorsed by incumbents. Cannon, however, is running as a challenger to the current board’s direction. That makes him interesting.

Another thing that makes Cannon interesting is that he didn’t cross-file for an attempt to appear on both Republican and Democratic tickets. Politically savvy people have told me that this was a tactical mistake. Candidates who cross-file and then win both parties’ nominations in the primary are believed to get more votes in the general election. Passing up this bonus, then, could be costly.

How costly? Let’s find out.

Take a look at the following plot. It shows the outcomes of the 2007 and 2009 general elections for the school board. I’ve replaced votes with standardized scores that make the two elections more comparable.

Candidates who cross-filed and then won both parties’
nominations tended to do better in the general election.

Looking at these elections, the “cross-filing bonus” seems to be real. As a group, cross-filers who appeared on both tickets got about one standard deviation’s more votes than their single-ticket competitors. One standard deviation is a lot: most candidates weren’t separated from their neighboring rivals by that much.

So, given that Cannon didn’t cross-file, but also given his strong showing in the Republican primary, what can we say about his chances in the 2011 general election?

I’d say he’s got a pretty good shot. I created three simple statistical models based on the last two elections and used them to predict the outcome of the 2011 general election. All of them predict that Cappucci and Lebowitz are the most likely to win seats, that Cooper is the least likely, and that in between there’s effectively a three-way tie between Cannon, Goldman, and Kubit. All in all, I give Cannon 4-to-1 6-to-1 odds of winning a seat.

Here are the models’ predictions:

  Model M1Z                 Model M2Z                 Model M3Z

# candidate prob_elected    candidate prob_elected    candidate prob_elected
1  CAPPUCCI 99%              CAPPUCCI 99%              CAPPUCCI 99%
2  LEBOWITZ 99%              LEBOWITZ 98%              LEBOWITZ 99%
3    CANNON 86%                CANNON 94%                 KUBIT 86%
4   GOLDMAN 84%                 KUBIT 94%               GOLDMAN 86%
5     KUBIT 83%               GOLDMAN 94%                CANNON 86%
6    COOPER 49%                COOPER 22%                COOPER 44%

The percentage after each candidate’s name gives the predicted probability of that candidate winning a seat.

These predictions, as you might expect, shouldn’t be taken too seriously. They are based on models that, for obvious reasons, can’t account for chance and, for simplicity reasons, don’t try to account for anything but nomination status and performance in the primary election. And when a model predicts that something is 99% likely, we shouldn’t believe it; it’s way more than 1% likely that model itself is wrong. Perhaps most importantly, November is a long way off. There’s plenty of time for candidates to shake things up – or flame out.

Still, the models manage to explain most of the variation in the 2007 and 2009 elections, so they are likely to offer some insight into the upcoming general election. I think I’m safe in saying that Cannon’s got a pretty good shot of winning a seat.

What do you think about my models’ predictions? How do they compare to your own?

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