Thursday, September 03, 2009

Lebo High School Renovation: A Status Update

Regarding the proposed renovation/reconstruction of Mt. Lebanon High School, the following synthesizes what I've heard privately and what I've seen reported in signed comments on other posts on the blog:

The plan to rebuild the high school at a price tag of $115 million, plus additions, extras, overruns, and the usual costs to be determined later, is a done deal as far as the School Board is concerned. There is no plan to have further public input or further public discussion, whether that has to do with the Taylor Report, Republican Party-sponsored surveys, any other surveys, a referendum, blog posts and comments, or anything else. Fasten your seat belts and hang on to your checkbooks, everyone; here we go. I might be wrong about all this; if so, certainly the School District should speak up. Right now, however, plan for the worst but hope for the best.

It likely could not have been and would not have been otherwise, despite some handwringing on this blog and elsewhere. From the beginning, a clear majority of the Board has been unwavering in its commitment to building a big and fancy new building.

My invitation for the District and/or the Board to speak -- here or anywhere else -- is just that: an open invitation. What is weird now -- and what really stands out -- is the fact that the Board today is just silent, absolutely silent, on the question of the future of the high school and of the Mt. Lebanon School District. I'm synthesizing what I've heard; I am not reporting anything that the School Board or District has announced. (The only public decision by the Board was the vote back in June to proceed with planning for a $115 million-level project.) The only School Director who communicates regularly with the public on those questions is James Fraasch, who is well-known to everyone who pays attention to the high school issue as a leading critic of the $115 million plan and who is, I suspect, now widely ignored by his School Board colleagues.

Some current School Boards are running for re-election. Some are not. Both major political parties have submitted challengers for Board seats. I wonder whether the result of the school renovation process will play a role in the outcome of the election. Will people be surprised and angry that they've been handed a $115 million-plus bill? Or surprised and pleased that the board has decided to proceed wth a gleaming new building?

And how is that bill going to be paid, exactly? We still don't know. Where will this money come from? Remarkably, on this point the High School Renovation website is quite explicit: We'll build now and plan to figure out the financing later -- "in a few years" is the precise estimate.

A second weird facet of this outcome is the fact that the teachers themselves have been essentially silent about it. Dave Franklin's comments suggest that no one asked the teachers what they thought about the plans. I don't know anything myself about that. But I do think that if the renovation were going to really make teaching easier and better, we would have heard from teachers themselves that this is a good thing. They would be standing on their desks, cheering. But they're not. I'm inclined to think that the teachers would rather have the construction money, or a big chunk of the construction money, go into education (salaries, new staff, teaching materials). The current teachers' (MLEA) contract expires in June 2010. My guess is that the teachers are keeping their heads down over the high school and hope to be rewarded for loyalty next year.

There are lots of people in Mt. Lebanon -- not just a handful of School Directors -- who are perfectly happy to spend $115 million on a high school. There are other people in Mt. Lebanon who are perfectly happy to defer to the judgment of the elected School Board, even if they would have reached a different outcome on the merits. Obviously, I'm not in the first group. The high school needs a lot of work, but the town doesn't need to start over, and right now, I don't think that it can afford to. And in one of the few times that Dave Franklin and I may disagree somewhat, I'm not comfortably in the second group, either. The process by which the Board came to this conclusion has been so flawed, so opaque, and in many respects so hidden from the citizens of the town [we still don't know what the Board and the architects thought of the Taylor Report, for example] that I really wonder: Is the local, small-town democracy that we want? Or is this the local, small-town democracy that we're stuck with?

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Blogger Bill Matthews said...

Mike - I think your assessment is pretty much on target at this point. However, some of us remain open minded. For example: Rob Gardner has replaced Alan Silhol on my ballot.

September 03, 2009 4:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too think your assessemnt is on target.
One question though... you suggest the teachers are keeping their heads down in hope of being paid for their loyalty later.
Loyalty to whom?
Four seats are up for grabs, do you think the teachers are confident that the next board will reward their loyalty?
Dean Spahr

September 03, 2009 5:25 PM  
Blogger Mike Madison said...

I'm speculating. I can't know what the MLEA might be thinking, or even if the teachers are thinking at all about this. "Loyalty" obviously is a metaphor for the possibility that the teachers wouldn't disrupt planning for the high school by a Board majority that is likely to vote on a new teachers' contract.

September 03, 2009 5:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Considering what the school board will probably look like after the election I think that the teachers know that they will be given just about everything they want.
Joe Wertheim

September 03, 2009 7:34 PM  
Anonymous Dave Franklin said...

I don't think I'm "comfortably" in that second group either. Instead, I think I'm there by default. I'm there by default because it would seem that no matter how hard residents try to bring this matter to the forefront, the harder it becomes to find a School Board member. However Mike, since I don't like sitting back and doing nothing, I'll gladly accept your write-in vote for School Board come November.

September 04, 2009 10:07 AM  
Blogger Bill Matthews said...

Once upon a time there was the Design Advisory Team - which represented a very broad cross section of the Community, more than 70 in number. This team at every meeting provided valuable feedback, asked important questions and interacted in such a way that there was genuine recognition (I believe) for the difficult discussions facing the Master Design Team and the subsequent decisions that would have to be made.

Pasted at the bottom of this post is John Allison's acknowledgment and appreciation for the contributions the team made in January.

It was anticipated the Team would continue to contribute in this expedition. Yet, this group has not been assembled since January and the Board has circled the wagons.

Dear Design Advisory Team Member,

I want to thank you for attending the meeting on Tuesday night. As I mentioned at the start of the meeting, the goal for the evening was to gather feedback on the presentation for the Community Forum on January 14 at 7:00 p.m. in the High School Auditorium. As a result of your comments and suggestions, we plan to make changes to the presentation. I hope the additional information and improved organization will help to clarify some of the issues you identified on Tuesday night.

I realize this can be a frustrating process, that is why I appreciate your patience and continued involvement. I hope to see you on Wednesday night and would appreciate any feedback you'd like to share after the meeting.


John Allison

September 04, 2009 10:21 AM  
Anonymous Bill Lewis said...

It seems to me that the Board majority is not up to the task before them....are actually incompetent and know it....and rather than venture opinions and exert true leadership in public, are content to hide behind their retainers (ie. architects, CM,solicitor and finance dir./financial advisor)and follow their's and the PlanCon process and timetable to the letter without meaningful challenge, question or whimper even when faced with errors & omissions by those whose invoices and fees they are approving.

Other descriptive private-sector terms that seem to apply for their behavior beyond "circling the wagons" are their exhibition of *fortress mentality* or *siege mentality*....hunker down, stay low, don't expose yourself and let your front line fortifications take the hits and carry the day.

Of course, the upcoming general election in Nov. has nothing to do with all this.....or does it ?

September 04, 2009 1:57 PM  

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