Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Will Mt. Lebanon Fall Behind Upper St. Clair?

Some citizens of Mt. Lebanon are notoriously anxious about "keeping up with Upper St. Clair." The Post-Gazette is reporting that the school board in Upper St. Clair has decided to borrow as much as $60 million to renovate schools, because construction bids right now are much lower than the norm. There is no suggestion in the story that the board was motivated by compelling needs to renovate falling-down schools or dangerous conditions, or that teaching conditions have impaired learning outcomes or student performance.

Construction costs may be low for the moment, which is something to consider, but $60 million still sounds like a lot of money to me.

I have to wonder how the move by our neighbors to the South will affect decisionmaking in Mt. Lebanon.
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read a lot of petitions and I've heard a lot of discussion about the number of gyms, the size of the pool, the improvements to the turf and the need to include a new field house, all of which are incredibly important to me and my family. What is becoming increasingly disconcerting to me, however, is that I have heard virtually no one discussing how many science labs we'll have, what the library will look like, and how the classrooms will be updated to provide our kids with the best available technology. Perhaps the disturbing silence on the "education" topics stems from the fact that the one group best postured to provide meaningful commentary on the high school project has been virtually ignored and has never really asked to offer an opinion -- that's right, the teachers.

It’s shocking to discover how they’ve been cut-out of the process for the past 12 months – notwithstanding vigorous objections from key faculty members. I understand that the teachers were polled as part of the DeJong study way back when (heck, everyone was), but that was an exercise in determining what everyone would like in a perfect world. To my knowledge, they've never been extended a meaningful invitation to the conversation. I would suggest that any discussion about this project should START with the educators themselves and one basic inquiry – “What, if anything, from a facilities standpoint do you NEED to improve the overall benefit to the students?” Sadly, a number of the Board members don't know the answer to that question and have spent precious little time directing that question to our teachers.

So, if we're taking surveys, survey the teachers! I'm pretty certain that most of the high school teachers would agree that a NEW building is NOT necessary That said, much IS needed and the infra-structure of the current facility has been bent to the breaking point because of years of excessive neglect. This alone seems inconsistent with the lip-service that this community gives to the "priority” of education.

On a personal level, I've come to grips with the fact that at least 2 of my 3 children may never reap the benefits of a new high school (they are both in middle school). In fact, they just might be asked to sacrifice the most during the disruption of demolition, construction and commissioning. However, I've come to grips with it because this isn't about me or my kids - it's about the improvement of our community as a whole - families with kids, without kids, single people, retired people, homeowners, renters, business owners, athletes, science lovers, artists and musicians.

I really think that if the community heard from the faculty (rather than architects, CMs and consultants - there will be plenty of time for them), a consensus could finally be built to move forward and perhaps the facility improvements could be phased over time to ease the tax burden provided there is some genuine confidence in the commitment level to finalize the needed changes over a staggered period. At the end of the day, I’m confident that our teachers will provide my kids with an outstanding education, regardless of the constraints the District may be suffering from in the years ahead. I’m also confident that there are enough smart people in our community who, if committed to working together, can timely figure out the issues we’re saddled with in a constructive manner – certainly, a lot of other communities have done so. This is not an absurdly unique dilemma we’re facing.

Dave Franklin

August 11, 2009 10:32 AM  
Blogger Bob Williams said...

I don't see Mt. Lebanon falling behind, not at all. All of the schools save the high school have already been renovated. And Mt. Lebanon graduates do just as well in post-graduate studies as the Upper St. Clair alums.
Perhaps the school board in Mt. Lebanon can look at the instant situation in USC. And decide whether the cost to "compete" justifies the ends to taxpayers.
When I initially read the PG article linked here, I chuckled. Backgrounder: What Mt. Lebanon residents may not know, is that in Upper St. Clair, conservatives often refer to a tongue-in-cheek concept known as "Upper St. Clair Math."
The pun is, whatever the low bid, add 35 percent or more--and with that, you are in perfect sync and accordance with "USC Math."
Indeed, according to the PG article, the cost to renovate the two middle schools is listed at $42.5 million. And yet...the school board authorized a $60 million bond. The article does not stipulate how the USC costs went from $42.5 million to $60 million.
And there you have it folks. USC math.
I've heard from some USC politicos recently who say they are "pleased that the school board chose to abide by long-standing tradition of USC math when calculating the amount of the bond" for the middle schools.
I suppose when your taxes are projected to go nowhere but up for the next three years, a sense of humor helps ease the anguish???
Long story short--the USC projects had a number of optional add-ons--and the board decided to approve every one of them and then some.
They also decided to renovate the high school stadium, which was on the radar in 2006, then dropped. In addition, there's going to be costs associated with the relocation of the school bus garage next to Fort Couch Middle School, which will be demolished in the renovation.
The bus garage costs are not included in the $60 million. Neither are the extra $10 million or so in extra interest due to "wrapping" the bonds and delaying payment on the principal for a decade or more.
So folks, those "savings" to USC glamorized in newspapers have all but vaporized. Due partially to a concept I first heard about in Mt. Lebanon regarding the elementary school renovations--called "Scope Creep."
The Mt. Lebanon construction manager at the time said the increasing costs were due to amenities added by the school board after receipt of the bids. They called it "scope creep."
Now as I recall, the initial estimates for the Mt. Lebanon elementary school renovations were about $43 million. I have the document. I saved it. The initial $50 million was supposed to include $5 million for a high school natatorium.
In the end, I believe the district spend about $57 million on the schools, and the $5 million for the natatorium vaporized into the ether. If there's a $5 million natatorium account in the budget, I'm not aware of it.
So for those of you hoping to "reduce" costs on the Lebo high school renovation due to hungry construction companies, take heed of the USC model and ask whether any "savings" is really measurable.
I suppose time wil tell. Godspeed, board members.

August 15, 2009 12:54 AM  

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