Monday, October 31, 2011

School district denies citizen’s request to review redesigned high-school drawings

On September 26, 2011, Mt. Lebanon resident Bill Matthews made a request under Pennsylvania’s Right-To-Know law to review the plans for the high-school project. The project had recently been redesigned after bids for the original design came in too high. Mr. Matthews wanted to review the changes. His request was straightforward:
[T]o review, in the district administrative offices, current architectural or other drawings of the High School project reflecting changes incorporated or anticipated to be incorporated based on the recent project re-design efforts.
At different times in 2010, Mr. Matthews had made three virtually identical requests to review earlier versions of the plans and drawings. Blog-Lebo has obtained copies of these requests. They read as follows:
  1. January 29: “HS Project Design Development plan and drawings. Request is to review in the District Administration or Facilities office.”
  2. February 23: “Design development drawings and more recent drawings of the high school project. Request is to review the available drawings in the facilities office.”
  3. November 24: “Request is to review, in the District administrative office, the current drawings and architectural plans for the high school project.”
All three requests were granted.

Mr. Matthews’s new request, however, the school district has denied. Why? Because, according to the school district, revealing the drawings would be too dangerous.


In a response to Mr. Matthews dated October 26, 2011, the school district claimed that it didn’t have to reveal the drawings because they were exempt from Right-to-Know law for safety and security reasons. Disclosing the drawings, according to the school district, “would be reasonably likely to result in a substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm to or the personal security of an individual” or “[create] a reasonable likelihood of endangering the safety or physical security of a building...”

Still, even if all the drawings were exempt from Right-to-Know law (which I find hard to believe), that exemption would merely give the school district the option to deny Mr. Matthews’s request. The school district still could have allowed the review (as it had in the past), or it could have allowed a review of only the drawings it didn’t deem too sensitive to disclose. But the school district, for reasons I find hard to fathom, chose to deny a citizen – completely – the right to review something that it seems reasonable for a citizen to review.

Why? I have no idea. Does the school district believe that it’s genuinely dangerous to reveal the redesigned drawings? Even in its own offices? Even to a citizen it’s already shown earlier versions of those same drawings three times?

So why prevent a review of the drawings now? The school board and school administration have both claimed repeatedly that one of their foremost goals for the high-school project has been to be open and transparent with the community. What, then, does the school district hope to accomplish by denying, on grounds that seem specious, an in-office review of the redesigned high-school plans?

I have no idea, but I do find it concerning. If you find it concerning, too, you might want to ask the candidates for school board what they think about the incident before casting your votes on November 8. They all claim to support government transparency, but it’s cases like this that help us determine who actually lives up to the claims.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

While Bill Matthews has been denied, the District is about to send or already has sent complete sets of these super-senstitive complete sets of drawings and related specs to perhaps as many as 50 or more prospective bidders (remember, there will be multiple primes this time around...believe it is 7...with the expectation that there will be a number of competitive bids for each prime contract) who in turn will allow all material to be viewed and analyzed by many individuals in each firm. They in turn will undoubtedly allow prospective subcontractors to review the drawings as well.

This being the case, did the District require confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements with each prospective bidder and perform background investigations on each prior to releasing drawings, etc. ?

Bill Lewis

October 31, 2011 9:55 PM  
Anonymous David Brown said...

I don't know anything about the safety reason.

However, since the redesign is about to go out to bid again, it would be improper to allow anyone to preview of the bid package. It could result in a challenge to an award.

Possibly all those visits in 2010 were considered well in advance of the bidding process.

Once the project is out to bid anyone can view the package at the Pittsburgh Builders Exchange. Technically you have to be a member, so if they press that point I'd be happy to take Mr. Matthews there as my guest.

October 31, 2011 10:02 PM  
Blogger Tom Moertel said...

The interests of bidders do not trump the interests of the public.

October 31, 2011 10:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand Mr. Brown's logic in suggesting that it would be improper to allow anyone to preview the detailed drawings of this project on the grounds of a possible challenge to a contract award; but if that is the case it makes the District's refusal of Mr. Matthews' request on pain of “..a substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm to or the personal security of an individual” and “...a reasonable likelihood of endangering the safety or physical security of a building...” all the more bizarre. What is it about these final drawings that is so different from the previous three drawings shown to Mr. Matthews that would compel such a finding? Does the District consider Mr. Matthews a “security risk?”; if so, why? (Perhaps Mr. Matthews has a photographic memory and wants to pass these plans along to the North Koreans!) And what is there about the new edifice that makes it a security risk? But then again, if all the District wants to do is to protect its “competitive awards” interests then why not simply say so?

I started to write the District to ask them those very questions but thought better of it, as I'm sure, given their current path of reasoning, they would consider any explanation a security risk.
Richard Gideon

November 01, 2011 8:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Weren't the security cameras taken out of the bids so they could be added after the renovation is complete? Remember the elementary school security doors added after the renovations were complete? Maybe Matthews would figure out how much security is taken OUT of the project to be added later on, off-budget.
David Huston

November 01, 2011 10:34 AM  
Anonymous David Brown said...


Surely you must realize it is in the public's interest for there to be a fair procurement process.

Of course I agree that the stated denial for security reasons sure seems odd. Maybe someone checked the wrong box somewhere? Or maybe it's another bit of the misguided and overwrought security theater you see all too often these days. There's no need to invoke anti-transparency conspiracies just yet. Obviously the plans will be available to all and sundry any day now.


November 01, 2011 12:03 PM  
Anonymous John Ewing said...

Have the plans been redone to favor a specific bidder?

November 01, 2011 12:21 PM  
Anonymous David Brown said...

John Ewing,

Is there some specific reason you think that might be true? If so, state it. If not, that question is beneath you.

David Brown

November 01, 2011 1:23 PM  
Blogger Tom Moertel said...


Of course, it's in the public interest to have a fair procurement process. But not to the extent that it trumps the fundamental interest of having a government that remains open to the public's scrutiny.


November 01, 2011 2:17 PM  
Blogger Bill Matthews said...

I am extremely disappointed in Dr. Steinhauer.

Considering ... this is a 100+ million dollar public project ... I had previously viewed similar documents in the District offices ... and ... I have a complete set of the original bid documents and drawings at my fingertips.

Shortly after I received the District's response, the "S" word came to mind ... ... ... silly.

November 02, 2011 8:11 AM  

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