Tuesday, December 22, 2009

High School Renovation Takes A Big Step Forward

The findings of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) were reviewed by the Mt. Lebanon School Board last night, with a number of community members weighing in alongside the project architect, who gave a detailed presentation addressing the CAC's main recommendations.  Most citizens agreed that the project should stay on track and that the redesign envisioned by the CAC was not only outside the charge given to the committee by the board but was also undesirable for a number of reasons, chief among them keeping Building C, an issue which the board had already voted down after lengthy deliberation.

The board ultimately voted 8-1 in favor of approving the architect's Design Development (DD) plans and gave them the authorization to proceed with construction drawings.  The lone vote against was cast by board member James Fraasch.  Over the course of the next many weeks, the board has requested that the architects review a number of issues, as well as some suggested by the CAC.  They include:  placement of the loading dock; reworking of Horsman Drive; tennis court options; LEED Silver certification; congestion/pinch points in the commons area; and a more welcoming entrance on Cochran Road.

Still to come are the scheduling of an Act 34 hearing for approval of the plan and the finalization of drawings.  I encourage everyone to either attend our school board meetings or watch them on TV.  The continued engagement of our citizens is what will help get this project to the finish line, an outcome that serves the entire community.


  1. Kudos to the school board for moving the design plans forward! This professional-volunteer review marks a pivotal step forward in the process. Residents can sleep at night in the knowledge that no detail has gone unexamined regarding our new high school; the new/remodeled facility is well on its way to providing a green, LEED-certified space for 21st century learning. Keep up the good work everyone!

  2. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the $115-million renovation plan as its supporters on Real Lebo, but I must consider the full body of available evidence, and that evidence argues strongly that this plan will end up denying our students more education than it will provide. In short, this plan represents a net educational harm to our community.

    To see why, you have only to ask, What meaningful, measurable educational value will this $115-million investment provide? I've pored over the research, and it refutes the notion that pumping money into school buildings buys better student outcomes. (There is a wealth of research on this subject: tens of studies and at least two meta-studies, the most recent from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which identified 24 credible research efforts, examined them, and concluded that "none proved a causal relationship between school facilities and student outcomes." [1]) To be blunt: There is little evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between better school facilities and better student outcomes.

    In other words, when you put your money into school buildings, you are not buying educational value. (Disagree? Please offer evidence to refute my claim.) But you can put your money into other things, things that do buy educational value, lots of meaningful, measurable educational value.

    So, we have a choice: Do we buy more-expensive buildings, the extra expense providing little educational value? Or, do we buy less-expensive buildings, the cost savings being available to invest in things that provide great educational value? The first approach is what our $115-million plan represents, and it denies our community the educational benefits of the second approach.

    And that's the problem. By overspending on facilities, we are forced to underspend on other, more-effective educational options. We lower the standard of education we could be offering to future students.

    I know many people in our community want a better high school, and they want it now, and that's not unreasonable. But education is important. Sacrificing education for things like buildings does a real harm to our students and to our community. Yes, we need a better high school, but there are ways of getting one that don't require us to sacrifice so much educational potential.

    Please consider it.




    [1] "None [of the 24 studies the GAO identified and examined] proved a causal relationship between school facilities and student outcomes." U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2009. Report GAO-10-32: School Facilities: Physical Conditions in School Districts Receiving Impact Aid for Students Residing on Indian Lands.

  3. Tom, how many kids do you have over at the high school? middle school? elementaries? I ask because I wonder if you are really REALLY okay with having your kids in a high school with a full-on leaking roof, puddles labeled "asbestos" in the weight room, duct-taped windows, a gazillion doors screaming "security risk!" and exit corridors so wonky that a disabled person would be hard put to make it out of the building in a fire. Not only is that not what I want for MY kid, I don't want it for YOUR kids or any other kids in Mt. Lebanon. So yeah, I think the building does have something to do with the overall educational experience, a topic we've batted about extensively at blog Lebo and don't really need to do anew here.

    Tomorrow is a new day and a new year and I am looking forward, moving on. I love my community and want nothing but the best for it and welcome the engagement of community members at this blog and elsewhere. But let's call it a day on this one and agree to disagree.

  4. I'm sure there's no surprise here, but I'm with Elaine on this one...furthermore, I refuse to jump onto this spinning wheel once again - it has been hashed and rehashed too many times already. I stand firm in my opinion that a renovated high school is a HUGE asset to this community - and that means everyone, not just parents. It is certainly NOT good news that Mt. Lebanon didn't even make it onto the new US News and World Report "best schools" list for this year. Can you say declining property values? Don't you think potential home-buyers look at these stats? I know they do.

  5. Elaine and Kristen,
    Your comments to Tom's post don't address the issue he raised. Sure a new school would be nice,and sure the current buildings need improvement, but $115 million dollars worth?
    What's important is how well kids will be educated, not how beautiful the new building will be.
    I do think potential home buyers "look at the stats". And the stats won't be improved by a new set of buildings.
    Money is not endless. Spending $115 million on buildings has got to mean other things get short shrift. Or do you think that great teachers will work for less because our high school is palatial?
    Frank Kelly

  6. Do the Real Lebo folks know something that the rest of us don't? Have the final design drawings, cost estimates and payment plans been hand delivered to the Real Lebo headquarters such that the rest of us not worry about how we're going to pull this off? Are you here to assure us that the tax bill associated with this project - when combined with the Municipality's obvious need for more tax revenues - won't make Mt. Lebanon unaffordable? How will my property value be impacted when I can't sell me $250,000 house because of an $18,000 tax bill?

    I was under the impression that you started this Blog to examine the issues from all sides - not just one.

    If Real Lebo wants to stick its collectively head in the sand and ignore the fact that with respect to the high school project we have more doubters/objectors in this community than we do supporters, I may re-visit your site for book and movie reviews and perhaps the occassional restaurant recommendation, but not much else.

  7. I think I speak for Kristen when I say that neither one of us wants a high school that's a Taj Mahal, and never has. The current design of the H.S. renovation was based on years of input from stakeholders including school administration, teachers and the community at large across many, many meetings -- of which we had no part! It's also plain to see (for anyone who attends school board meetings) that every time someone asks for extra lanes for the swimming pool, perfectly-sited tennis courts or a RIFLE RANGE (yes, a rifle range at a high school), they seem to get it.

    I would like to see Mt. Lebanon have a high school building that is safe for its students and focuses on academics, and is well-suited to learning styles in the 21st century. If we can get that for five or ten (do I hear twenty?) million less than what we've budgeted for, I'm all for it. Why wouldn't I be? I pay taxes here, too. But if we don't keep moving this project forward, it will only get more expensive over time. Further, we accomplish very little by covering ground that has already been covered ad nauseum.

  8. Thanks for your comments Frank and Dave. I suspect that neither of you were at the last school board meeting or you would know that I was the one who stated to the board that the high school does NOT need to be Lincoln Center (and I am a professional musician!), Heinz Field or Pens Arena. These are all venues that the CAC (COMMUNITY Advisory Committee)recommended we try to emulate in the new high school. Absolutely not necessary in my mind. As Elaine mentioned, we pay taxes too. I would love for the price tag for the high school renovation to be less. I personally don't give a hoot about a 6-lane pool, 8-lane pool, or even a pool at all. A rifle range seems like a joke to me, as does a football field that looks like Heinz Field....and tennis courts that could host the US Open - not of interest to me either. However, it has become very clear to me that many in this town put sports at the top of the list. I am not one of those people. However, I do recognize and even respect the fact that many, many sports people in the community have come forward and demanded that the board listen and include all of the sports "bells and whistles" in the new design. It has also become very clear to me that this is why the price tag is so high. I don't necessarily agree with it, but it is what it is. THe community has spoken. Clearly much of the expense for the new school comes from all of the abovementioned "bells and whistles". Months ago I even pointed out to the school board that "we are not building a YMCA...we are building a high school." At the last board meeting I also stated (and this is a quote) "The priorities for our school should not be how pretty it looks... The priorities should be the facilities, and most importantly, how effectively it serves its students." So this is something that I actually think we agree about Frank. Your comment about "how beautiful the school looks" leads me to believe that you misunderstood my intentions. For the record, I want a renovation that will address the needs of the students in the best possible setting for 21st Century learning. I also strongly feel that Lebo kids deserve to be in a school that is safe. I am also 100% in support of a LEED certified school. This is the 21st Century after all. Frank and Dave, do you attend school board meetings? If so, I'll see you there!

  9. As a member of the DeJong Educational Specifications Committee that became morphed into the Design Advisory Team, AND as a parent of high school children, AND as a veteran parent of the poorly-managed and poorly-planned elementary renovations, Elaine's December 31 post mentioning "puddles labeled 'asbestos' in the weight room" serves as a reminder of how the District so often gives short shrift to asbestos-in-schools issues. Could you post a photo of these puddles? Both Kristen and Elaine imply in their January 2 posts that they believe that the high school is not currently "safe" for its students. Could RealLebo.Com post information backing up that claim (other than the asbestos already mentioned)? Thanks!
    --Pam Scott

  10. Pam, I thought the "asbestos" pic was in this slide show from the MTL web site (and, I believe, included in the DeJong study):


    but on a review of the slides, I could not find it. That said, a good many of us saw the photo Kristen and I referred to -- it was a cramped area of the high school and there was a sign (hanging on the wall, I think) saying something to the effect of "Asbestos, Do Not Touch" with an arrow pointing to a puddle on the floor. It was stunning for the obvious reasons but I also thought asbestos to be more particulate matter and not puddly (I'm no scientist). More reference to the asbestos issue in the school can be found in this letter from the project architect:


    Pam, Kristen and I don't consider the building safe for many of the reasons in our previous posts: are there too many entrance/exit points to guarantee safety? will a leak from the roof in center court create a puddle of water that someone slips on and breaks their neck? and what of the teacher who spoke at a school board meeting a number of months back who was concerned about the high incidence of breast cancer among teachers and staff? Kristen and I aren't the alarmist type but we've heard way more concerning stuff than we'd like coming out of the high school. A renovation that addresses these issues is, in our opinion, long overdue.

    Kristen and I aren't experts, simply concerned moms/citizens. Isn't a better source of information the district or have you lost confidence in that body? How about Elaine Cappucci or Dan Remely, the school board members running point on this project? Surely they have better information than Kristen or me.

    Lastly, if the "asbestos" pic was a prank, it was in very poor taste.

  11. Thanks for your post Pam. The asbestos "puddle" is one that I personally spoke to our previous superintendent about. The more stories I heard from kids and parents about the high school, the more concerned I became. THe asbestos labeled pipe in the weight room that was leaking was just one. Our previous superintendent also confirmed with me that the layers and layers of peeling paint in the older parts of the school do, in fact, contain lead. These pics can be seen on the slideshow on the district site as well. Granted, high school kids know better than to eat the peeling paint, but the dust gets into the air and into lungs. I also spoke with the Allegheny health dept and the Lebo Fire Dept about the safety codes at the school. As I have posted in the past, and mentioned in several school board meetings, the various buildings in that school are currently being held only to the safety codes that existed WHEN THEY WERE BUILT. Unless a major renovation is occuring, a school is not required to update older portions of builidings to current code. This concerns me - especially since parts of the school were built in the 20's!! The fact that there are not sprinkler systems throughout the school is another example of safety. But Elaine is right, the district should be answering your question.

  12. Thanks, Elaine and Kristen. Like you, I too am a concerned parent and citizen. But unlike you, I know that Alan Silhol was correct late last year at a board meeting when while trying to convince Sue Rose that an examination of the current plans by CAC was a good idea, he reminded her that she was a part of the poorly-managed and poorly-planned elementary renovations. Haste does often make waste. Extra eyes are very much needed here in Mt. Lebanon. As I posted over at BlogLebo, I am very concerned about this new "revised" hazardous materials assessment study mentioned at the December 14 school board meeting where "it's looking like 18-20% less" than the original assessment. It seems like we might be heading for a repeat practice of ignorantly underestimating the extent of hazardous materials so as to get lower bids, and then "finding" stuff that was "not anticipated" along the way. For example, was there not a $32,000 change order to a $42,000 asbestos abatement contract for the stadium in summer 2008? Despite a promise from school solicitor Tom Peterson in 2004 to provide the federally-required annual written notification that informs parents and staff of their school's upcoming and recent asbestos activities, the District has done nothing of the sort. You yourselves have seen that the asbestos is not properly labeled in the high school. During the elementary renovations, children actually sat in asbestos and construction dusts and breathed in airborne asbestos and other dusts needlessly due to the District not following best practices. You can read a little of what you missed by not living here during the elementary renovations at
    with respect to how asbestos was handled.
    --Pam Scott

  13. Kristen is right, “the district should be answering your question.” But just last month the President of the high school PTSA told the board her emails are unanswered. That is a problem; the board is behind closed doors making decisions and not answering questions. Check the Policy on Executive Committee meetings and you will find Facilities is not a permitted discussion item for executive session but the board violates its own rules anyway.
    Stay Well,
    John Ewing

  14. Just picked up Right-To-Know-requested photocopy from District offices of the new "revised" hazardous materials assessment study mentioned at the December 14 school board meeting where "it's looking like 18-20% less" than the original assessment. Also picked up copy of the original assessment. (On January 2, I posted here "It seems like we might be heading for a repeat practice of ignorantly underestimating the extent of hazardous materials so as to get lower bids, and then 'finding' stuff that was 'not anticipated' along the way.) Well how about 'ignoring' stuff like lead paint that's obviously there?

    Shockingly (but not surprisingly given what occurred during the elementary renovations with respect to lead paint, silica dusts, etc.) the only hazardous material being considered is asbestos. No kidding.


    --Pam Scott

  15. Yep, Kristen and I agree that there are issues here -- we're going round and round. More fodder for school board meetings. Let's take the conversation there.

  16. Pam, I'm glad you are staying on top of this. We all need to. Safety is of vital importance. I have been beyond concerned about the current safety of the school for a while now. I've spoken with the Lebo Fire Dept, Allegheny Health Dept, and our former superintendent about the issues. Lead paint is certainly an issue as well as the asbestos - if you look at the slide show on the district website you will a see stairwell with huge chunks of peeling paint which has been confirmed to be lead paint by Dr. Allison. I am hopeful that all parties involved will take these issues seriously and that the inspections will smoke out any problems that need addressing that none of us are aware of. But I do believe that diligence is a must on our part, and transparency on the part of the board and the builders.

  17. Your comments on asbestos and lead paint are certainly important, but it's hard to believe that these problems can't be fixed for a great deal less than $113.5 million!
    Or are we being asked to support the crushing tax burden of this figure just to please the "sports people"?

  18. Please see Mr. Kubit's recent FAQ where he addresses the issue of the cost of necessary repairs vs. cost of a more comprehensive renovation. And if you know any "sports people," please ask them your question! Kristen and I aren't the sports people.

  19. They CAN certainly be addressed for a great deal less than $113.5 million, fkelly! Kristen, I don't think lead paid is on their radar, given that the only hazardous material in their original and revised hazardous materials assessments is asbestos! The recommended method for dealing with asbestos in a school is to manage it in place unless it is going to be disturbed.
    --Pam Scott


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