Saturday, January 30, 2010

Big Brother At The School Board?

Karen Wolowski, President of the PTA Council of Mt. Lebanon, has a chilling tale to tell that evokes the specter of Big Brother.  Her email letter to the community is posted below (the blog she references in her letter is not Real Lebo).

Karen's reflections on the incident she describes below:  "I feel there is a public expectation of confidentiality in communications with the School Board and find it morally and ethically wrong to have my private opinion, shared with a handful of individuals, disseminated to the public.  Tell me, if someone has a different opinion from a School Board or Municipal Commission member, does it give that member the right to twist those views and slap them into a letter to select constituents?  I am as apolitical as they come and avoid controversy.  In my role as PTA Council President, I have always kept people's privacy.  I hold our School Board members to the same ethical standard.  As to why there are those who are always trying to discredit the PTA and its members, I have no idea.  I have never told the almost 4,000 members of the PTA what opinion they should have on an issue."

Karen continues, "The bottom line is that a member of the School Board redistributing my private communication with the Board to the public was WRONG, and if they did it to me, they'll do it to anyone else in the community.  If Board members cannot be trusted to keep confidentiality, on what else can they not be trusted?"

Karen's letter to the community follows:

On Wednesday, January 27th I got a phone call from a Mt. Lebanon resident who told me that a letter that I had sent to him was sent to the wrong person.  I was confused and asked him what letter.  He said, "Oh you know.  The one that starts 'First and foremost, I am writing to you as a *private* citizen and my comments in *no way* reflect the opinions of the PTA in Mt. Lebanon and should not be viewed as such'".  I thanked him for telling me.

I share this with you because on Monday, January 25th I wrote a letter via email to each member of the Mt. Lebanon School Board.  And that letter does in fact start out with that before mentioned sentence......"First and foremost, I am writing to you as a *private* citizen and my comments in *no way* reflect the opinions of the PTA in Mt. Lebanon and should not be viewed as such".  I sent it to 9 people....only 9 people on the face of the earth got this email from me.  Within hours, information from that email (though twisted and distorted) appeared on some sort of a blog posted by a private citizen.  Two days later I discover that not only was my email forwarded to private citizens, but it had also been hard-copied and mailed to people in the community, a serious breach of the implicit or even explicit duty of members of the school board to treat residents of Mt. Lebanon with respect and confidentiality when such residents respectfully but earnestly express their disagreement with members of the Board.

First let me say that I have NEVER given up my constitutional rights as a citizen of this country just to serve on the board of a nonprofit. I have as much right to express my views as the next person.  I thought that is what the members of the School Board wanted from the residents..... to let them know their opinions about various issues facing the community and our School District, after all they were elected to represent the PEOPLE of Mt. Lebanon.  Regardless of what side you represent on an issue, do YOU want your opinion as a private citizen to be sent to the public without your knowledge?  When YOU voted for these School Board members, did you not have an expectation of ethical behavior from them?  When you sent your last email or letter, did YOU expect it to become public fodder?  Are YOU concerned about where your email might end up and who ultimately might be reading some unauthorized version of it?    Does it scare you to think how someone reading your unauthorized distorted and edited email may react to you, a private citizen of Mt. Lebanon?  Does it scare you?  Well maybe it should.

Apparently a member of the School Board  has violated a trust with their constituents.  A member of this School Board  has read my letter and because he or she disagrees with it,  widely  disseminated it to their private citizen consortium. Someone on the School Board has made some of the most outrageous ethics violations I have seen in this community. Someone on the School Board has violated a public trust by forwarding and copying a personal and private email sent to them in their capacity as an elected official.  Someone on this School Board blatantly disregards YOUR rights as a private citizen and throws ethics out the window.  If one of our state legislators or federal legislators forwarded a letter that one of us sent to him on a particular issue to members of the public without our authorization because that legislator disagreed with our viewpoints, we would be outraged.  How would you react if a letter that you sent to your state representative on a particular issue such as abortion, taxes, etc was sent by him to members of the public.  Should we hold our Mt. Lebanon School Board members to a lesser standard of integrity and ethics?

Please beware!! It could happen to YOU! Maybe a certain School Board member doesn't like your haircut, or your sentence structure or your viewpoint or your cat.  It really doesn't matter why...it only matters that it could happen to YOU!  Perhaps it already has.  Someone on the School Board could very easily leak YOUR PRIVATE communications to the community.  Is that really OK with you?

Be careful!  A pattern has been set here.  If you happen to have an opinion about something that is different from a School Board member, your comments may be edited, copied, pasted and forwarded.  Be careful!  The trust you THOUGHT you had in some of your elected officials has been violated.  BE CAREFUL!!!!!!

NOTE:
Anyone who is NOT a resident of Mt. Lebanon can just disregard this email. Residents of Mt. Lebanon can do with this email as they see fit, be it forward or delete. Nothing in this email is confidential.

Karen Wolowski

MESH Food Drive Feb 1-15 To Benefit SHIM

MESH (Mobilize and Empower the South Hills) will be holding a food drive Feb 1-15 to benefit the South Hills Interfaith Ministries (SHIM).  Last year's drive collected over 3,000 lbs. of food and the group hopes to get many times that amount this year.

Information on donations, collections and how to volunteer your time toward this effort (high school students, are you listening?!) is available at the MESH web site here.  From the group's recent press release:

"SHIM distributes food in a respectful and dignified manner to hundreds of households on a regular basis. They almost never have enough donations to meet their needs and the shortage is always greatest in January and February."

Give MESH a hand if you can!

Please Take The mtl Magazine Survey!

I just completed the survey now available for community members and readers of mtl-Mt. Lebanon Magazine.  Here's the link:

 http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/LT22TXL

The survey is quick and easy and the questions (and answers!) should serve the magazine's editors and writers as they pull the publication together every month.  Tailoring advertising to their readership is yet another good reason to weigh in.

It will only take a few minutes of your time so grab a cuppa joe and get to it!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Heart O'My Town: David Dorn, V.M.D.

David Dorn always knew he'd be a veterinarian.  Growing up with "at least a dog and a cat all the time," the third-generation Mt. Lebanite completed his undergraduate studies in Colorado and then attended veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania.  That explains why there's a "V.M.D." after his name as opposed to the more common "D.V.M."  Turns out that Penn's veterinary school was based, and developed, out of a medical school as opposed to most veterinary programs, which are borne from land-grant agricultural colleges.

The road back from Penn to Mt. Lebanon was something of a circuitous route for Dorn.  "I now realize I was searching for something better -- I think I was looking for a beach!" he chuckles.  "I tried California but the school system was bad and the water was cold.  It wasn't the Atlantic.  I spent a year in Massachusetts and that wasn't what I was looking for, either.  Once you settle down here, you understand why you're back."

For Dorn, having his mom in town was a plus.  He also had fond memories of the town.  "I remember we always kept our door unlocked," he says.  "And I could meet someone new in school and invariably, my mom knew their parents and grandparents."  His attempt to set up a veterinary office in Mt. Lebanon in the early 1990s, however, wasn't as seamless.  "I tried hard to get a location at the north end of Washington Road but they effectively zoned vets out of Mt. Lebanon!  I don't know what they were afraid of," he says.  At his current location, the West Liberty Animal Hospital in Dormont, Dorn says the neighbors are happy to have them and pleased "we light up the alley at night."  Even though he's on the other side of the municipal line, Dorn sees many Mt. Lebanon residents at his practice.

A 1971 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High, Dorn's two eldest children have already graduated from the school and his youngest is now a junior.  Like many residents, Dorn sees things that need to be done.  "We need more fields for kids to play sports.  The ones we have are overused and beat up -- the kids are playing on mud.  I'd much rather see kids play sports than go to the mall or hang out or get on X Box."  Dorn also laments the shift in neighborliness ("When I was a kid, I talked to all the neighbors and now it's maybe half") and sees a need for more community policing, that friendly cop-on-the-beat who knows the neighborhood and everyone in it.

Even so, Dorn can't imagine a better place to be.  "There are people here who are absolutely amazing.  Most people want to make things better and care enough to put in the extra effort to make it happen."  As for his work, "I can't think of a better job in the world.  I might be having a down day, say if I have to euthanize an animal, and then I step into the next room and a puppy licks my face.  It's the way things are -- it's life.  I've also got a great staff."

If all dogs and cats go to heaven, their journey will be much more pleasant if they visit Dr. Dorn's office along the way.  Be sure to say hello to the spry gal running the place -- that's Mom.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

How To Post A Comment At Real Lebo

Kristen and I are heartened to see the growth of our blog and delighted to hear from friends and neighbors (and folks we don't even know!) how they love checking in at Real Lebo to hear more about our community.  Something else we've heard with great frequency is "how can I post a comment on your blog?"  No shame in asking -- a lot of people are new to the blogosphere and we're happy to facilitate your connectedness.  I'll try to describe posting a comment in five easy pieces.

1.  Click on the link at the bottom of the post on which you'd like to comment that says "0 Comments" or "2 Comments," etc.  Scroll down to the bottom of post where it says "post a comment" and you'll see a box below that where you can insert the text of your comments.  Type away!

2.  Once you've completed your comment, access the scroll-down menu next to where it says "Comment as" (you can do this by clicking on the triangle) and click "Name/URL."  This is the easiest interface.  Type in your name (a URL is not necessary) and click the "Continue" box.

3.  Click the box that says "Post Comment."  If you'd like, you can click the "Preview" box first and review the text of your comments.  You may choose to close that box and go back to your original typed comments to make a small edit, or if it's good to go, simply close the Preview box and click Post Comment.

4.  Your comment will appear at Real Lebo once Kristen or I receives it for moderation.

5.  Ha!  It only took four steps.

Thanks again for your interest in Real Lebo.  We're honored to be creating community in the place we love.

Time Is Money In Mt. Lebanon

A hotel owner in Pittsburgh told me earlier this week that the construction bid they received for a proposed major expansion of his property had come in so low that they added another significant piece to the project and the final total bid came in at their original bid expection.  Effectively, they added in a huge chunk of build for their original budgeted amount and it felt as if they were getting it for free.

This speaks volumes to the current favorable bidding climate in the marketplace.  With respect to the high school renovation, I'm not saying for a minute that we should add one extra square foot to our project.  What I am saying is that we should do everything possible to get the project to bid AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.  Can we incent the project architects to have construction drawings completed by springtime instead of the anticipated summer date?  As School Board Director Dan Remely outlined at the January 18 school board meeting, we have already identified a number of concrete ways in which we will reduce the cost of the high school renovation.  The variable number is the ultimate bid received by the district, and current market conditions give every indication that if we jump in now, we will see considerable savings for the taxpayers of Mt. Lebanon.

I wish like heck that we had completed the high school renovation 5-7 years ago, when it probably would have cost half of what it will cost today.  Surely, we've been talking about it that long, and even longer -- I had to laugh, ruefully, when School Board Director Mary Birks said at the same January 18 meeting that the conversations on the high school project began when her son was in second grade and they were still going on now that he's a sophomore -- in college!  No one doubts that the project needs to be done and the cost estimate of making necessary repairs ($103 million) vs. the renovation's maximum projected cost ($113 million) makes a clear case for a comprehensive renovation that will last for decades and have current taxpayers paying for it but once.

Our School Board was smart, and bold, to float bonds for this project last fall and as a result, received a rate at or near 40-year lows.  That will save our citizens money in the long run.  If we can put this project up to bid soon, we will in all likelihood accrue the kind of savings seen in other large projects across the region.

The more we talk about this project, the more expensive it gets.  Time is money, in Mt. Lebanon and elsewhere.  I support the School Board taking the smart, and bold, step of putting this project up for bid sooner than later so that we can save all the taxpayers of Mt. Lebanon money in the long run.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Let the Truth Be Heard Loud and Clear

I was so happy to see the that Ed Kubit took the time to write the FAQ pertaining to the high school renovation. While one person attempted to throw the town into a confused frenzy, the leadership had the sense to calm the masses with the truth. It is unfortunate that misinformation has been put out there, and that people have clearly been misinformed and terrified by Mr. Fraasch's message. I am confident that the truth told by Mr. Kubit in the FAQ will serve to calm those who were sucked into the doomsday-like hysteria. It's a shame that it played out the way it did, but I am glad that the rest of the board has stepped up to the plate to not only keep this project on track, but to reassure a panicked community.

If you have not had a chance to read the FAQ, I encourage you to do so. Once you have, you can draw your own conclusions - but I suspect you will feel great relief.

Here is the link.

Onward!

"The Time To Act Is NOW" on High School Renovation

Lebo resident Rob Papke, known to many in the community for his support of environmental issues (he's a guardian angel to Lebo's beloved trees!), weighs in on the high school renovation project.  Rob has been following this project closely for years and has children currently attending the high school.  He knows firsthand the dismay and disbelief many of our high school students feel around the conditions of the school.  His letter to friends and neighbors is posted below.


Dear neighbors and friends,

I am writing this not as a representative of the PTA or as a member of the joint School District/Municipal Advisory Board but simply as a concerned parent and 15-year resident of Mt. Lebanon.

Recently, School Board member James Fraasch circulated an email concerning the High School Renovation Project.  His email was filled with worst-case scenarios, half-truths and distortions which served to mobilize a very vocal group of residents opposed to the project.  I will not delve into the details of his email and repudiate his misinformation; you can read the facts of the matter for yourselves and obtain correct information on the School District's web site.

As far as the proposed tax increase is concerned, nobody wants to see their taxes go up.  However, anyone who has had a child or grandchild attend the high school knows all too well the degraded state of that structure.  When you consider the potential health hazards posed by a persistently leaking roof and an inefficient HVAC system that is literally sending our tax dollars out the window(s), it is evident that this project has been delayed far too long and something needs to be done now.   Further, the cost differential of essential repairs to the building ($100 million) vs. a comprehensive renovation (maximum $113 million) are not enough to argue for the repair-only option when a patchwork job means we'll be paying considerably more to get it right ten years from now.

The High School Renovation Project has been discussed and shelved by previous School Boards for many years and construction costs only continue to rise. Some feel that during these economic times it is inappropriate to undergo such a project; however, Building B at the school was constructed during the depths of the Great Depression. As dire as these times may seem, I think we can all agree that this current financial crisis is not of the magnitude of the Great Depression. Furthermore, there are opportunities to be taken advantage of in the current economic climate such as the bond issue that was recently floated at a 40-year-low rate, an extremely favorable climate for construction bids, etc.

Now more than ever, School Board members need to hear from supporters of this project. The Act 34 Hearing on February 22 is a pivotal step in the process and public support is key to the project’s ultimate success. Our voices of support for the project need to be heard over the naysayers; this very vocal, and at times poorly behaved, group was out in full force at the January 18 School Board meeting and we need to counterbalance that so this project continues to move forward.

Please mark your calendars and plan on attending the Act 34 Hearing scheduled for February 22 at 7:00 pm in the high school’s Fine Arts Theater. If you are willing to speak, there is an opportunity to do so at the meeting, however, it is just as important to be in attendance as a show of support for the project. If you are unable to attend, please send an email or letter to the School Board in support of the project; your message doesn’t need to be lengthy, a few sentences will suffice. The School Board’s email is: schoolboard@mtlsd.net.

The time to act is NOW. Thank you.

Sincerely,
Rob Papke
850 Vermont Avenue

Residents Should Be Willing To Pay For Education, Says Longtime Resident

Deb Smit, a third-generation resident of Mt. Lebanon, recently talked to me about her aunt, who taught in the Mt. Lebanon School District over forty years ago.  Even then, her aunt lamented how the district was unwilling to put money into the buildings and let conditions deteriorate far more than was prudent.  Deb finds it hard to believe we're still caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place with respect to much-needed improvements at the high school.

Deb's letter to The Almanac on this topic was published today and I've reprinted it below.


1/27/2010

Residents should be willing to pay for education
Deb Smit – Mt. Lebanon
To the editor:

Mark Twain once said there are three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics. That about sums up the misinformation campaign being waged in Mt. Lebanon against the high school project. It's truly disheartening that a director of our own school board would be responsible for circulating inflated statistics about the renovation project in an apparent effort to discredit the leadership and professionals who have done a yeoman's job of keeping this project on track and within cost. If our taxes go up by more than 13 percent, it won't be because we are building a new high school. Taxes attached to the high school are projected to rise by 8 to 13 percent over the next five years by the district's estimates. That's equal to $340 per home assessed at $100,000 on a $113 million project. Look at it this way: Either we are forced to spend $103 million to fix the pressing problems with the existing building, and there's a boatload, or we spend a little more, $113.2 million at the most, and give our community a facility that will serve our children well into this century. We aren't building the Lincoln Center or the Taj Mahal. In fact, from Cochran Road the school will preserve the Art Deco architecture that many cherish. Even more, a renovated high school will continue our community's unbroken legacy of providing students with an exceptional education. Education is Mt. Lebanon's only industry. It's the one thing that those of us who live here should be willing to pay for and fight to preserve.
Deb Smit
Mt. Lebanon

High School Renovation Information--Full Text

The full text of School Board President Ed Kubit's recent FAQ (a Frequently Asked Questions letter) regarding the high school renovation project is reprinted below.  In his letter, Mr. Kubit clears up misinformation recently circulating over emails and in the local media about this vital project.  I urge you to read the letter, inform yourself and contact the School Board with further questions or concerns.

Please feel free to forward this link to other community members, or simply copy and paste the full text of Mr. Kubit's letter in a correspondence of your own.  Help move this conversation forward in a positive direction.  Thanks!  --Elaine Labalme and Kristen Linfante


January 26, 2010

Dear Mt. Lebanon Residents,

Over the past week, I’ve heard from many community members who have raised questions about the cost of the High School project and the impact this will have on taxes this year and in subsequent years.  Many of these questions have come in the wake of the January 18 School Board vote to approve the Act 34 document that sets a maximum total High School project cost of $113,274,765. In an effort to provide clarification, I’d like to address some of the most frequently asked questions that have been raised by residents.

Are taxes really going up 50% in the next few years?

NO
 
Taxes could go up because of three factors:
1. Debt on the High School Project:  The increase in debt due to the High School project, minus lower operating costs from the new building, is estimated to increase taxes between 8% and 13% over the next five years.  This is based on our current millage rate of 24.11 mills. Actual increases will depend on the final project cost, which cannot exceed $113,274,765. The millage rate for debt for this project could cost between 2.25 mills to 3.4 mills.  Savings on operations, including lower utilities and fewer staff, could reduce millage by .35 mills. While the largest increase in millage for this project will be in the 2010-2011 budget, some smaller increases may follow in subsequent years. The School Board and administration will continue to identity potential cost savings throughout the coming years to lessen the impact on tax increases.
2. Pennsylvania State Employee Retirement System (PSERS-State mandated retirement program for District staff):  ALL school districts in Pennsylvania will have the identical retirement rate increases and will see proportionately large increases in their millage rates. Increases in the State retirement rate this year is anticipated to cost our community about .35 mills or a 1.5% increase in taxes.  Over the next two years, the increase could be higher, but the rates projected for the PSERS change regularly.  Any increase will occur incrementally over the next five years and will change for the better as the investment environment improves or as legislation changes the impact of the rate.   If the worst possible PSERS projection is correct, our District’s millage increase – just for this rate change – could be as much as 3.45 mills or 14%.  Legislation is currently being discussed in the State Senate to address this issue.

3. Cost of our education program:  Being fiscally frugal, the Board has limited tax increases to 1% in each of the past two years and 0% the year before while maintaining the high quality of our educational programs.
When you combine all three of these factors the assumption that our taxes will increase 50% in the next few years is not accurate.

Is the High School Project going to cost each Mt. Lebanon resident $10,000?

NO

The calculation of this number used the maximum cost of the project divided by about 10,000 single family dwelling units. There are approximately 14,000 single dwelling residences in Mt. Lebanon.  The calculation presumes that only those homeowners pay tax in our community and that they will each get a bill for an equal share of the project.  This assumption is NOT true. No large rental units were included in this calculation as were no commercial properties, yet they both pay substantial taxes in our community.


No one property owner will receive one single bill for the cost of this project. Taxes for the High School project will be billed annually to all residential and commercial property owners for any bonds the District issues for this project over the next 25-30 years.  The new taxes for a homeowner who has a home assessed at $100,000 will be between $225 and $340 a year depending on the size of the project when the bids are completed and the amount of bonds the District must issue.


What is the cost of the project?

The cost of the project is still fluid.  The maximum it could cost would be $113, 274,765. However, this includes contingencies of about $8 million for unknowns and does not take into account that bids on recent school construction projects came in at 17% to 25% below their original estimates.  Additionally, we are working with our architects and construction managers to find ways to further reduce the cost through value engineering.  The School Board is committed to find ways to reduce the cost of the project so the final cost will be less than $113,274,765.

What is the cost of a “renovation only” of the High School compared to the current design estimated at $113,274,765?

According to the estimates provided by our construction manager, PJ Dick, the cost of a renovation only of the existing buildings would be $103 million. That would translate into approximately 3.18 mills or $318 per year, per home assessed at $100,000, compared to $340 a year for $113 million project.  This is a reduction of $22 per year. A renovation only option would mean maintaining the existing 545,255 square feet; the replacement of the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems (MEP/FP); asbestos abatement; code required improvements; roofing replacement; interior finishes due to the work just mentioned. There would be minimal site repairs, minimal sustainability, and minimal energy savings. There would be no change in layout of the High School to support 21st Century teaching and learning; no change for fine and performing arts spaces; no change for physical education and athletic spaces and no change for classroom size.  This would require us to continue to adapt existing spaces to fit our required program. Such an option would require multiple construction phases during a 3-5 year project and includes student displacement, impacting the High School learning environment. Click here for more information about the current High School design.

Will we need to borrow more money for the project?

The Board approved borrowing $69 million in bonds in October of 2009.  Due to the favorable bond market for premium bonds, the District netted approximately $75 million for the project. The first bond payments for that issue will be due in the 2010-2011budget.  Additionally, funds have been set aside to pay directly for the cost of some asbestos removal in the building without the need to borrow money.  If we are able to achieve lower bids from contractors, it is possible we might not need to issue many more bonds.  Act 34 requires that we present to the community the cost in millage as if ALL of the maximum cost of the project is borrowed through issuance of bonds.  That makes the millage estimates we are now using the highest they are likely to be.


Are taxes going up 14% in 2010-2011?

NO

Current State law requires schools to publish preliminary budgets in January before they have important information in key areas such as student course selections, enrollments in kindergarten, staffing needs, staff retirements, heath care rates and utility rates for the upcoming school year.  Since we are required by law to present a budget this early in the year, there are major gaps in information that will not be known until later in the spring. Our current early projected budget reflects a 14% increase, however, accurate projections of cost begin in the early spring and an actual proposed millage rate is presented to the community in April.  Final millage increases in the past three years have not approached the preliminary millage increases projected in early January each year.

How do our costs for the High School project compare with school construction projects in neighboring school districts?

Construction managers, PJ Dick compiled a cost comparison between our project and the high school project in Baldwin and the middle school project in Upper St. Clair. There are two areas in particular that set our project apart from other area school construction projects. They are: 1) site and 2) asbestos abatement. These two areas represent significant cost differences between our project and those of other schools. It is also very difficult to compare projects because of programmatic differences between schools. Click here for a cost comparison provided by PJ Dick. 

Are the District enrollment numbers going down?

Enrollment numbers have decreased at a very slow rate in recent years.  Our total enrollment four years ago was 5,454 students.  This year our enrollment is 5,302 students.  This is a reduction of about 12 students per grade level over four years.  For the next four years we are projecting enrollment to decrease less than 66 students, or 5 students per grade level, over those four years.   The new High School design takes into account enrollment projections over the next 20 years.

Are taxes higher in Mt. Lebanon than other Districts?

Mt. Lebanon School District taxes are ranked 12th in Allegheny County for 2009-10 according to data from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.  Eleven school districts have higher tax rates than Mt. Lebanon and 30 have lower tax rates.  The average tax rate in the county is 22.7 mills.  Our rate is 24.11 mills.


Why do we need this project?

In July 2001 a Facility Assessment of the High School was conducted by the architectural firm of Valentour English, Bodnar and Howell. To quote the report, “This assessment has found that even with good maintenance, many of the systems have, or are approaching the end of their useful life.  Impending lack of availability of parts in some cases dictates their replacement in the near future.” Infrastructure and MEP/FP equipment have exceeded their life expectancy, are costly to repair, and negatively impact the educational process.  The building is asbestos-laden and the exterior veneer is failing.  Roof structures need extensive replacement.


Since the last renovation in 1972, there have been many programmatic changes to the way education is delivered, including the extensive use, availability, and integration of technology in the classroom and the need for flexible space for student and faculty collaboration.   The physical space of the High School is not designed to accommodate 21st century teaching and learning requirements:
• Classroom size is too small to be used for learning activities beyond direct instruction.
• Resource areas such as the library do not serve today’s needs.
• Common areas are needed to provide for learning activities outside of the classroom.
• The building layout is complex and inefficient; it has evolved based on additions in the 1930’s, 1950’s and 1970’s,     with each addition being a reaction to the problems of the time and without a comprehensive plan.
• There is a lack of ADA accessibility in the current building.
• The infrastructure, including building systems such as heat, electricity,  HVAC, boilers, and windows, while supported and well maintained beyond life expectancy, is seriously aging, constantly failing, and in need of total replacement
• Science classrooms and labs are inadequate for our program.
• Classrooms and common areas do not possess needed technology infrastructure to support collaborative learning and complex problem-solving skills development.
• Fine Arts spaces are inadequate for our program.
• The pool and athletic areas do not meet the school and community needs.
Why do we need to begin this project now? Can’t we wait?

Local school districts that have recently approved construction projects were able to take advantage of seriously reduced construction rates leading to building costs between 17% and 25% below their estimates.  We are trying to take advantage of this excellent bidding environment for our project.  A reduction in our construction costs by 20% could reduce our need to borrow money by $18 million.  We do not know how long this favorable bidding environment will continue, so by bringing this project to bid we can save money for the residents of our community.


Additionally, further delays in needed infrastructure repairs will continue to negatively impact the conditions in the building for students and staff. As mentioned earlier, the assessment performed by Valentour English, Bodnar and Howell, stated that many of the critical systems were at, or were approaching the end of their useful life nearly 10 years ago.  Significant updates have been not made since that time.


Why has the building square footage increased by 30,000 square feet?

The current building square footage is approximately 545,255 square feet.  The new high school design is approximately 479,845 square feet, an approximate 14% decrease in space.  Early schematic design goals were to establish the square footage at about 440,000 square feet. Since that time, the design has evolved.  Some of the changes include adding two more lanes to the pool to make it eight lanes and adding a third auxiliary gym. The space under the current pool, which was not originally intended to be used, is now being converted to a storage area.  The new academic wing is now being turned to rejoin the building at the fine arts area.  Early space estimates in the DeJong Space Utilization Study did not include all space in the current buildings to be renovated. Our science curriculum was reorganized which requires additional space, space for the District maintenance facilities were not included, the driver education program, including the space for the driver simulator, was not included as well as space required in the kitchen for the addition of the elementary lunch program. Square footage may change slightly as the design is refined.

Who is making the decisions about the High School project?

The School Board makes all decisions about this project with input from the Superintendent, administration, teachers, architects, construction manager, consultants, Master Design Team and community. The Board has discussed and held public votes on key milestones throughout the process which has moved this project forward since it began in 2006.


What are the next steps?

The next step for the project is to hold an Act 34 hearing on February 22 at 7:00 pm in the High School Fine Arts Theatre.  After the hearing, the community will have at least 30 days to submit comments to the District about the project. In April, the Board will vote to approve and submit PlanCon D which will include the minutes from the Act 34 Hearing, any written public comments sent to the District, the proof of advertisement and the Act 34 booklet. PlanCon D will then be submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.  The District will continue through the process which includes seeking zoning and planning approval for the project while preparing construction documents for bid. Questions concerning single prime bid vs. multiple prime bid and the hiring of an owner’s representative must also be addressed and approved by the Board this year. Our goal is to begin construction in the winter of 2010-2011.

We will continue to add to this list of questions which will be posted on the High School Renovation FAQ page on our website at www.mtlsd.org.

Thank you for taking the time to become informed about the High School project. I know we are all committed to doing what is best for our school and community. Please feel free to contact the School Board at schoolboard@mtlsd.net. Your feedback is always welcome.

Sincerely,
Ed Kubit
President, Mt. Lebanon School Board

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Relay For Life Needs Teams Now

My neighbor, Jen Cooney, tipped me off to the upcoming Relay For Life in Mt. Lebanon, scheduled for June 5 and 6 at the high school track.  The event, the American Cancer Society's main volunteer-driven fundraiser, relies heavily on community members to form teams for the relay portion of this 24-hour event.  Jen is spearheading the effort to organize a team on our street and this is something that can easily be done by residents across Mt. Lebanon.  Organizers Heather Knuth, Sue Wilcher and Angela Giacchino are happy to answer questions and get you pumped and their email addresses are listed below.

Chances are you or someone you love has been touched by this terrible disease.  Consider the Relay your chance to fight back.

Heather Knuth:  knuth at id-design dot us
Sue Wilcher:  swilcher at mtlsd dot net
Angela Giacchino:  angela.giacchino at cancer dot org

A Courtly Gentleman

Mt. Lebanon lost a good man last week, Dale Colby.  A decade-long municipal commissioner, Dale was a fixture on our local sports scene, which is where I met him a couple of years ago.  My son and his grandson were on the same soccer team and we both cheered from the sidelines, reveling in the future of Mt. Lebanon.  Dale always had a kind word and a twinkle in his eye and, to me, represented the best of our town.  A courtly gentleman, I thought.

When his daughter, Bri, told me last week how much her dad wanted to see the high school renovation completed, it occurred to me that we could name the new center court Colby Court.  When future generations of students asked as to the name, they could be pointed to an exemplar of our community who was always willing to give back to the town he loved.  A teachable moment, for sure.

Monday, January 25, 2010

High School Renovation FAQ Issued By Board President Ed Kubit

School Board President Ed Kubit posted a FAQ on the high school renovation on the district's web site today, link here:

http://www.mtlsd.org/highschoolrenovation/boardfaq.asp

It's a document that's worth reading as well as forwarding to those with questions or concerns about the project.  The School Board welcomes feedback at schoolboard at mtlsd dot net.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Mt. Lebanon still perfect" says Post-Gazette

Perfect schools? trees? neighbors?  It's the Mt. Lebanon High School boys basketball team that's perfect, according to today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  The Blue Devil are 14-0 and ranked #1 in WPIAL Class AAAA.  Rock on, fellas!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Props from Pop City

Pop City, a weekly e-magazine that's bullish on Pittsburgh, featured a piece on Realebo.com this past week. They captured our desire to be positive most of the time and critical when needed. It's how we are in life as well. Life is too short not to be optimistic! Thanks Pop City!

Their article can be found here:

http://www.popcitymedia.com/innovationnews/reallebo0120.aspx



http://www.popcitymedia.com

Breathe

As much as I love the Pittsburgh area, I do have my concerns about our air quality. I was shocked to find out how we rank in our country and I wonder if my younger son's new respiratory issues are a result of the poor air quality. Therefore, I was happy to hear that the state relinquished approval of a proposed waste coal power plant in Robinson. This is a Big win for anyone down wind from the proposed plant, especially us Mt. Lebanon residents. You can read more about it here:

http://www.observer-reporter.com/or/localnews/01-21-10-DEP-pulls-power-plan

Friday, January 22, 2010

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Greetings all,
I just wanted to check in to "Lebo Central" to let you all know that I'm still in the loop. I have not posted much recently because I am out of town performing right now. However, I have been keeping up via my trusty little Dell Mini. I'm in sunny Houston, TX right now performing with the Houston Symphony. Traveling is always fun and adventurous, but I think Dorothy said it best when she said, "there's no place like home..." When I travel, and when I perform in orchestras I am constantly reminded of the importance of community. As an orchestral musician it is my job to cultivate and participate in the "community" of the orchestra - we are a team...we have to be, just like the Steelers or the Penguins, and sometimes even the Pirates ;) In the orchestra we have to work together like a well-oiled machine in order to have successful concerts. Similarly, townspeople need to work together and support each other to have a thriving community - whether it is done through supporting local businesses, helping a neighbor in need or staying engaged in the many facets of our town, it is all vital. When 100 people are on stage trying to achieve the same goal of putting forth a great concert all disagreements and differences need to be left at the door. Don't get me wrong - there are issues and differences of opinions that come up - but ultimately we realize that compromise and mutual respect is paramount. Respect is a biggie...respect is certainly contagious. Give some - get some. Pretty simple. I am a huge proponent of the "community" concept. It enriches all of our lives whether it is on stage, in the grocery store, on the football field, in the classroom, in the board room, or in one's own backyard. Community doesn't just happen. IT takes work, but, boy, is it worth it. Count me in!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pizzas for Baseball!

About a week after we moved here in the summer of 2007, a fellow knocked at our door and asked us if we wanted to buy a book of coupons to support the school's Blue Devil Club.  We weren't sure what the Blue Devil Club was, or did, at the time but wanting to be neighborly, we said sure and paid the man $24.95.  In return, we received a little booklet with 25 or so coupons to assorted local pizzerias and each coupon entitled us to 50% off a large pizza.  In short order, we acquainted ourselves with Little Nippers on Beverly Road, Nick's Pizza on Mt. Lebanon Blvd. and our soon-to-be-favorite, Mm! Mm! Pizza on Castle Shannon Blvd.  I think the booklet paid for itself after the fifth pizza and it made for a very easy dinner option some nights.

We bought the pizza booklet again in 2008 and the 2009 edition is about to be printed (better late than never, since it's already 2010!).  This year, the booklet will benefit the Mt. Lebanon Baseball Association, one of our town's hardest-working groups.  Check out their web site and if they don't call you first, definitely contact them for a copy of the pizza booklet.  It's a delicious delivery for a great group of kids.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Making Education Fun: The Mt. Lebanon Education Association

Our young son, already an avid weatherman (his weather station on our back deck is proof positive), was eager to attend a Carnegie Science Center weather camp last summer.  "Why don't you apply for a scholarship with the MLEA?" said a well-informed neighbor and this is how we came to learn about the Mt. Lebanon Education Association (MLEA), the representative for Mt. Lebanon's 436 teachers.  Lo and behold, we applied for a summer camp scholarship and our son won (as did nearly forty other kids in town) and we still have the weather vanes and rain sticks to prove it (and yes, he loved the camp).  A recent conversation with Drew Haberberger, President of the MLEA, proves, well, educational.

"Math and science are so much about figuring things out," says Haberberger, a physics teacher at Mt. Lebanon High School.  "Kids may think physics is about equations and memorization but it's very different.  Take a tree:  how does it support itself? a building?  We can almost trick kids into applying physics and these skills are transferable to anything.  They can work with any kind of data, make a claim, back it up and still apply it ten years from now even if new technology changes the data."

And what of the strengths and weaknesses of Lebo kids?  Haberberger takes his cue from Malcolm Gladwell when he discusses the sense of entitlement our children feel.  "It's a sense of entitlement both positive and negative," he says.  "I like that in class, they feel entitled to ask questions, or to seek remedies when they're confused.  Our society needs more of that.  What we don't need is 'I deserve an A because' or 'I don't need to be disciplined for talking to my friends.'  The knowledge our kids have of the world around them is also good and bad.  On the plus side, they're familiar with so much thanks to the resources available to them, many online.  But along with that comes the loss of youthful naivete and the risk of 16-year-old know-it-alls.  Even if you're on the net 24/7, you don't know everything at that age!"

Speaking to his most rewarding experiences as a teacher, Haberberger alludes to the first time he saw the proverbial light bulb go off on a kid's head, the joy in getting a kid from a D to a high B and making a connection with a parent.  "I consider myself very fortunate to have this kind of life," he says.

Haberberger is happy to be a part of the Mt. Lebanon School District and enjoys his collaboration with new superintendent Dr. Tim Steinhauer.  "I'm glad we have Tim here," he tells me.  "His heart and head are in the right place.  We need people that say what's best for the kids of Mt. Lebanon."

The MLEA scholarship program is funded solely by the teachers of the District and is designed to promote and reward a love of learning.  Information on the program, as well as the MLEA's mission, can be found here.

A Vision For Mt. Lebanon's Commercial Districts

Every building tells a story, according to Eric Milliron, Commercial Districts Manager for Mt. Lebanon.  "I try to learn each story to see if it needs to be rewritten," he says.

Keeping the storefronts occupied is only part of his job, though it's one he does well:  the Uptown district has a vacancy rate of 7-9%, which is considered low in the industry, while the Beverly Road corridor is 100% occupied at street level.  So how do we leverage our commercial districts to attract maximum foot traffic and keep merchants happy?  Events, for starters.

The youthful and energetic Milliron taps into his own personal experience for ideas that will benefit the community.  An avid bicyclist, he arranged for Mt. Lebanon to kick off "Car-Free Friday" in the region.  On May 21st, all residents will be encouraged to leave the car at home and take public transit to work, walk the kids to school, etc.  The initiative, co-sponsored by Bike Pittsburgh, will have local merchants offering discounts to bicyclists on that day while the Police Department and W. Liberty Cycle provide bike inspections and music plays well into the night.  Another opportunity to bike our sites will come with the "Tour de Mt. Lebanon," a joint venture of the Mt. Lebanon Partnership and the Mt. Lebanon Cycling & Caffeine Club.  Modeled after Pedal Pittsburgh, the self-guided cycling tour will circumnavigate the municipality while meandering through parks and neighborhoods.  A map with architectural details will allow riders to finally engage little-known areas.

"The way you enliven main streets is to have a good mix of businesses but also to host events that bring people here," says Milliron.  "That benefits the community and the businesses."  Milliron's next event is the Uptown Winterfest, which will include a late-afternoon scavenger hunt and live music in the evening.  The date is Saturday, February 13 and East End Brewing products will be on tap.  Looking down the road to summer, the First Friday series will continue Uptown and Milliron is hopeful for more merchant participation since these events draw considerable foot traffic.  "Even if you don't make the sale that night, you'll get the customer later," says Milliron.

One thing is certain:  a lively Mt. Lebanon is a win-win for everyone and my family is already training for the Tour de Mt. Lebanon!

High School Project Continues To Move Forward

Last night, the school board voted 6-3 to set the maximum budget for the high school renovation at $113 million as part of its Act 34 Hearing filing to the state.  The hearing is scheduled for February 22nd at 7 p.m. in the high school's Fine Arts Theater.  Many school board directors, including Dan Remely and Elaine Cappucci, who are running point on this project, expressed a firm belief that the project could come in under $100 million.  While citizens spoke both in favor and against moving forward, a majority of the board felt that the work they had done over the last several years led them to stay the course. 

I spoke at last night's meeting in favor of keeping this project moving forward and kept my comments civil.  The upshot?  A slew of obscene, vulgar comments hurled at Real Lebo this morning from those who disagreed with me.  I've never known anyone to win hearts and minds by lobbing grenades from the gutter, especially at TWO MOMS.  Is this what our town has come to?  Say it ain't so, Toto.

Kristen and I have a lot of faith in Mt. Lebanon and believe that the high road will carry the day.  That's why we soldier on with a blog that looks positively on the future of this community.  I know that our citizens are engaged in this dialogue and listening closely.

We encourage your attendance at the Act 34 Hearing for the high school renovation project on February 22nd.  In the meantime, there's a lot more to talk about in Mt. Lebanon, including educational initiatives, a vision for Uptown and yet another fine person who's the Heart O'My Town.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A School Board Meeting Of Vital Importance To Mt. Lebanon

The School Board meeting scheduled for Monday night, January 18, 2010 at 7:30 p.m. in the high school library is of vital importance to our community.  Among the items up for vote is the scheduling of an Act 34 hearing that will keep the high school renovation project moving forward.  We urge your attendance.

PLEASE do not flood this blog with comments pro or con on this issue as the chatter has already reached fever pitch.  We offer tomorrow night's meeting as the forum for discussion.

Thanks!
Elaine Labalme and Kristen Linfante

Hear Hear, The Sidewalks Are Clear!

I ran five miles yesterday morning for the first time in weeks now that our sidewalks are finally clear of snow, slush and ice.  Thank goodness the temps warmed just in time to cool my cabin fever and get me back outside.

Truth be told, I was surprised that our sidewalks had been so treacherous for runners, walkers, seniors and moms-with-strollers for such a long time.  Granted, some folks are simply unable to get out and shovel and that's where a neighborly eye comes in handy.  I have more than once shoveled my neighbor's walk, not only because she's not as spry as I am but because I'm happy to do it for her -- her smile and ceaseless optimism make it a pleasure to lend a hand.  What I find harder to understand are folks who give their walk a cursory shovel and still leave a ton o'snow behind!  Note to slacker shovelers:  this lumpy snow turns to bumpy ice and is a serious hazard.  It also begs the question: is this why so many kids are driven to school in the winter, because it's too treacherous to walk a few blocks?

It's only mid-January so we're likely to get a few more significant snowfalls before springtime.  If we do our collective best on shoveling, maybe we'll minimize the number of sprained wrists and twisted ankles in the community.  The ER workers at St. Clair Hospital will surely thank us!

Help Haiti

After making a donation to the Red Cross I received an email thanking me for the donation. Included in the email was the following slideshow. Take a look if you are still considering making a donation but haven't yet. They need all the help they can get. Today and every day I am counting my blessings.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/americanredcross/sets/72157623078316465/show/

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Faure String Trio - Free Concert

FYI - Jennifer and Raúl Fauré are two of the musicians who make up the Fauré String Trio. They're playing a free concert tomorrow, January 17 at 4:00 pm at Old St. Luke's Church.

The program is just over an hour, including string trio works by Haydn, Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven. I mention it here because they're wonderful musicians who I know you'll enjoy and if you're interested in finding a Mt. Lebanon-based violin or viola teacher, this is an opportunity to meet them. You can also visit their website at faurestringtrio.com

Heart 'O My Town: Mt. Lebanon Magazine

Heart 'O My Town is usually reserved for someONE rather than someTHING, but I think Mt. Lebanon Magazine deserves the accolades. I remember receiving my first edition when we first moved here - what a lovely introduction! It was like a friendly neighbor saying "welcome to the area". I love its tone, its layout, features, photography, etc. As far as I'm concerned they have really nailed it in terms of not only appeal, but also capturing the feel of this lovely town. And it's really informative too! I really appreciate all of the effort that goes into that magazine. What a labor of love! Thanks Mt. Lebanon Magazine! Keep up the good work!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Neighborly Eye On Haiti

This week's mega-earthquake in Haiti certainly puts our municipality's issues in perspective: the loss of life in that desperately-poor Caribbean nation is horrific and it will take years to rebuild. The potholes on our streets or which storefront will ultimately fill that large lot on Castle Shannon Blvd. pale in comparison to this catastrophe.

What can we do as neighborly citizens of the world ("of the universe!" my Star-Wars-crazed son would say)? The following orgs are all reputable according to friends in the non-profit sector and worthy of our donations:

Partners In Health, which has been working in Haiti for over 25 years

Doctors Without Borders, a past winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

International Committee of the Red Cross

We are truly blessed here in Mt. Lebanon and now more than ever is the time to share our blessings with those desperately in need in Haiti. Thanks for your support and please spread the word about orgs like these that are doing the good work.

Heart 'O My Town: Larry Hensler

Mt. Lebanon isn't just about lovely homes on tree-lined streets. It's about community. In my mind, no place really feels like "home" unless one has that sense of community. One person who really adds that piece to my life is Larry Hensler, our fantastic crossing guard who graces the corner of Vermont and Hoodridge every school day. I remember the first day of school when we first moved here. Larry's cheerful and friendly demeanor put us all at ease. We have since become good friends, exchanging family stories and local news during the daily trek to and from school. Larry is one of those people who knows every parent and child's name, and looks out for all of us. I have no worries about my child's safety as long as Larry is around. Furthermore, he's even been known to shovel snow out of the driveway near his post - just because he's a nice guy. Every town needs more people like Larry! When he heard that my son had taken an interest in golf (one of Larry's favorite pasttimes) he brought us buckets of golf balls so that my son could practice at home! Larry is also a volunteer firefighter in Castle Shannon where he lives. He is truly a man who serves his community! His kindness is infectious and I often try to show my appreciation to him with a batch of homemade cookies or brownies. We should all take a cue from Larry. Let's all pay it forward! Thanks Larry!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My Wish List

OK - the South Hills, and Lebo in particular, really does have it all - well almost in my opinion. Granted, I got a little spoiled by the big city amenities I enjoyed in my previous home bases of NYC and San Francisco. However, Lebo has turned out to be a great compromise - and in many ways is a much more suitable and certainly hassle-free place to live than either of those places....and it's certainly top-notch for raising kids. BUT, if I had to make a wish list for our little corner of Pittsburgh, it would contain one thing - TRADER JOE'S!!! I am thrilled that we finally have one in the city, but, boy, wouldn't it be great not to have to make the schlep over to Penn Ave for all of my favorite TJ's gourmet delights??? For those of you who know about Trader Joes, I'm sure you understand what I'm talking about. For those of you who haven't had the TJ's experience - it's a must! Fabulous gourmet and much organic food at amazing prices. I've made it a habit of frequently going to the TJ's website www.traderjoes.com and sending them pleading messages to consider bringing Trader Joe's to the South Hills. A friend of mine in Cleveland did the same thing and it worked! Maybe, just maybe, if enough of us do the same, I just might get my wish list fulfilled!!! It would be a major "score" for all of us!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Let's Keep It Local On Valentine's Day

With Valentine's Day a scant month away, my thoughts have turned to dinner, drinks and romance.  I've been giving a lot of thought to what Fen and I will do on Sunday, February 14th and the good news is we can easily have a romantic evening close to home.  We might start with cocktails at the Wine Bar at Il Pizzaiolo on Washington Road, a personal fave, and continue with dinner next door at Bistro 19, where I've never been disappointed with Chef Jessica Gibson's fresh, seasonal fare.  Or we could flip it and begin with drinks at Bistro 19's long, low-lit bar and segue to warming pastas at Il Pizz.

Another option would be dinner at Luma on Castle Shannon Blvd., where the cozy dining room and candlelit tables are made for two, or Iovino's on Beverly Road, the culinary play space of Lebo native/Chef Jeff Iovino.  And then there's the second-floor nooks at Atria's on Beverly Road, the perfect backdrop for Chef Jozef Karst's hearty, soul-warming food.

I can personally vouch for all of these restaurants save for Iovino's, which I'll be visiting in a couple of weeks (and on which I've received many good reports).  Keeping it local on Valentine's Day means more revenue (read: tax dollars) stays in the community and you won't have far to travel on snowy roads.  Make your reservation soon and have an evening to remember!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Food for Thought

About a month ago I was harshly reminded of the fragility of life. My family had just finished eating dinner one night when suddenly, out of the blue, my 8-year-old son started to cry. He began to complain that his mouth was burning. When I looked at him I quickly realized that he was having an allergic reaction to something. His face and tongue rapidly began to swell and he was becoming hysterical. We whisked him into the car and raced to St. Clair Hospital. By the time we got there about 7 minutes later he was literally unrecognizable and was having trouble speaking and breathing. They took one look at him and rushed him into a room. They quickly gave him a shot of adrenaline and hooked him up to an IV full of steroids and antihistamines. They saved my son’s life. Needless to say, I am beyond grateful for their efforts and for modern medicine. While at the hospital we hashed through all of the possible culprits. There were only two – penicillin which he had started on that day for an ear infection (a drug he has taken many times), and BRAZIL NUTS. It was around Thanksgiving when this happened and I had just purchased mixed nuts in the shell. My older son had been eating them at dinner and offered my little one a Brazil nut. He was skeptical and only took the tiniest sliver (he describes it as a crumb) to try. No one in my family has ever had an allergic reaction to any food, including nuts. I had assumed that by now we were “in the clear” since no allergies had appeared in the past. Lo and behold we came to find out that he has a severe allergy to Brazil nuts. He was tested for all tree nuts and peanuts, and he is only allergic that one. However, I have come to find out that because he has an allergy to one, he is much more likely to spontaneously develop allergies to the others! Who knew!?!? Because of this and the risk of cross-contamination he is now banned from eating ANY nuts – peanuts and tree nuts. Needless to say, this has all been quite shocking and terrifying. Obviously, I have a much greater appreciation and sensitivity for people with food allergies now. Granted, I had always thought of myself as someone who was very sensitive to the needs of people with food allergies. For example, like most moms, I always ask if a child has allergies when he or she comes over to our house for a play date. Obviously, I would never offer a child allergic to peanuts a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or a cookie that contained nuts. HOWEVER, in the past I would have very likely offered them a plain homemade chocolate chip cookie, or perhaps some jelly beans. Clearly neither of those contains nuts! But guess what!?!? 99.9% of typical brand name chocolate chips are manufactured in facilities that process peanuts and tree nuts! The same goes for jelly beans! I was shocked when I read the label on a box of Jelly Belly brand jelly beans! Made in a facility that processes nuts! Wow! This might not seem like a big deal to some people, but knowing what a “crumb” of a Brazil nut did to my son has changed my attitude dramatically. I realize now that a similar “crumb” could fairly easily find its way into a batch of melted chocolate or jelly bean goo.
The reason I have chosen to share my story is so that I can hopefully bring a greater understanding and appreciation to people about this very serious issue without them going through the horror that I went through. Here are just a few facts that everyone should keep in mind when dealing with potential allergies:
• Nuts (both peanuts and tree nuts) can be found in many foods that are not “obvious” culprits
• Always read labels to see if products contain nuts or are processed in facilities with nuts or other allergens present. (Keep in mind, some people are allergic to milk, eggs, wheat, etc.)
• Be sensitive to the real dangers that children with food allergies face. Some severely allergic children can go into anaphylaxis shock simply by inhaling the scent of nuts from another person’s breath!
• People who are allergic to a specific type of nut should strictly avoid ALL nuts due to the risk factors described above.
• If you do experience an allergy emergency, call 9-1-1 immediately. Severe reactions can be not only life-threatening, but they can escalate very quickly. Every second really counts.
• Be aware that anyone (adult or child) can develop an allergy to something at any time. For example, anyone who has enjoyed peanut butter for years can spontaneously develop and allergy to it at any age. Previous exposure to a food is actually NECESSARY in order to develop an allergy to it. Exposure does not necessarily mean ingesting the food. It can simply be touching or smelling the food.
• People with mild food allergies can develop more severe reactions at any time. Often times a second exposure to an allergen will cause a much greater reaction. It is the body’s way of saying “no!”

As parents, we all strive to keep our children safe. Allergy awareness is yet another way to accomplish that. Luckily there are life-saving ways to counteract severe allergic reactions. However, the best way to deal with allergies is by strict avoidance of known allergens. Believe me when I say that no parent or child should ever have to endure what we experienced on that fateful evening in November. I urge everyone to strive to keep not only their children safe but ALL children safe.

Where Are We, Geographically Speaking?

Thinking about homes and neighborhoods got me back to one of my favorite questions:  where exactly are we, geographically-speaking?  One of my favorite sites, weather.com, places Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania squarely in the Northeast, tho we're less than three hours from Cleveland and Columbus, which are considered icons of the Midwest.  Or should the fact that we're no more than four hours from Baltimore or Washington, D.C. (and live in a state that borders the Atlantic) bestow a Mid-Atlantic designation?

I'd be interested in hearing from those who've lived here longer than me as to how they perceive Mt. Lebanon from a geographic perspective.

What's Your Home's Walk Score?

An article in today's New York Times touts walkability as the fourth factor in determining home value (the first three being "a well-kept neighborhood with good schools and a low crime rate").  This isn't exactly a new concept:  Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Thomas Hylton has long touted neighborhoods like Mt. Lebanon for their walkability and spoke on this very topic in Mt. Lebanon last fall.

The article points you to a site called Walk Score that lists the 40 most walkable neighborhoods in America and also allows you to plug in your street address to determine your own walk score.  My score of 63 would place me with the top fifteen neighborhoods in the U.S.  (whew!) while others in Mt. Lebanon fare better or worse.  It may not be as addictive as zillow.com but it's close!

There's a reason we listed "walking" and "sidewalks" at the top of the page -- they matter!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Gotta Love the Lebo Fire Dept.

I received an email today from a friend about a service the the Mt. Lebanon Fire Dept provides to all residents. They will come to your home and do a safety inspection, check chimney safety, etc. Here's a quote from my friend's email, "The representative from the department spent about 45 minutes at our home. Not only looked at the fireplace to ensure safety, but also checked all the fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. He also suggested prime placement for the carbon monoxide detectors, which we had one in an area that might not have been of best use.One of our fire alarms was too old and he replaced that for us on site. I didn’t know, but even if your alarm beeps during testing, it still could be expired. A carbon monoxide detector is good for 7 years and the fire alarms are 10 years (pending when you bought them.)He talked with the kids about safety issues. Asked them some questions about where the safe meeting place was and such. I would highly suggest for any of you that haven’t taken the department up on this wonderful service that you try it. Especially if you have any concerns about your fireplace, they did a great job of investigating any severe problems."

Here's a full list of services that they provide to residents:
· Senior Smoke Detector Installation Program
· Senior Fire Life Safety Program
· Block Parties
· Home Safety Inspection Program
· Chimney Inspection Program
· Juvenile Fire Setter Intervention
· Lifeline Installation
· Citizens Fire Academy
· Community Events
· Safety Fairs

Thanks a million to our Lebo Firefighting Heroes!

A Vision

Mt. Lebanon, 5:22 p.m.:  Our town is a vision.  Rooftops covered in snow, the branches of the tall pine outside my window listing downward as tufts of white inspire sighs.  Scattered Christmas lights twinkle in the distance.  I thank my neighbor Eric for reminding me that "it's  beautiful out" as I mumbled something about the evening chill.

Currier and Ives has got nuthin' on us on this sweet January night.

Heart O'My Town: Barbara Kraft

When I first met Barbara Kraft, she introduced herself by saying "Hi, I'm Barb and the party's at my house!"  Wow, I thought, this is someone I want to get to know.  So I did, and what I came to learn is that this is a woman who parties with a purpose.

One of eight kids, Barb grew up as the daughter of engaged parents (her dad was on the local school board) who told her she could do anything in life.  "They always expected the best we could do," she says and those early lessons revolved around family, faith and justice and peace issues.  As a nurse by training and someone who has "visited all seven continents and lived on three," Barb has seen the good and the bad in humanity and come to realize "our shared responsibility to read and learn and form an opinion, an informed opinion."

In 2004, she opened her home for the first time to a political fundraiser, on behalf of John Kerry.  Working with a friend from the South Hills Interfaith Ministries (SHIM), a group of eighteen volunteers "said what they'd do and then did it" and the event raised $20,000.  Since that time, she has played host to supporters of State Representative Matt Smith ("I see great, great things for Matt -- he's principled, caring and follows through on what he says") and shepherded an event for Celebrate Diversity, an organization co-founded by fellow Lebo resident Elizabeth Castonguay that serves to foster cross-cultural understanding.

While I've yet to make it to a party at Barb's house, I look forward to the opportunity to meet and mingle with her terrific circle of active, engaged citizens.  Barb, you rock!

Snow Day

Growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, my sister and I often trudged to St. Stephen's School in waist-deep snow, lobbing snowballs at each other all the way.  Our school was only three blocks from home and I don't remember anyone's mom ever driving them to school -- everyone walked, no matter how cold or snowy it was outside.  Then again, I think most households in our neighborhood were one-car families and Dad had already taken the wagon to work.

Maybe that's why I was surprised that today was declared a snow day in Mt. Lebanon.  I sort of understood the phone call we got last night informing us of a 10 a.m. start today.  Giving folks a little extra time to shovel the walk and bundle the kids was a nice courtesy (and same no doubt goes for the teachers and staff who drive to our schools).  But I was really puzzled by the call early this morning declaring a snow day.  I immediately jumped out of bed to see if we'd gotten a foot of snow overnight and, best I could tell, we had a couple more inches between midnight and 7 a.m. and there were no six-foot-tall snow drifts blocking the sidewalks.  The thermometer read 12 degrees.  "They're making our kids soft," I deadpanned to Fen.

I'm not sure what's involved in calling a snow day but I'd love to hear from someone at the School District or municipality on this.  If today constitutes a snow day, will we call a snow week if we get a blizzard?  Just wondrin'...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Copy Cat?

An anonymous (therefore, unpublished) commenter sent me a note this evening suggesting I was copying Blog-Lebo for writing a list of my favorite things in town since Mike Madison used to do the same.  Well, I had no idea Mike had ever done this but truth be told, top ten lists on any topic are not a novel idea and I have written many of them over the past fifteen years as a professional writer/journalist.  The same commenter also called me out for writing about the Lebo hockey team.  Again, I hardly took my cue from Blog-Lebo -- my son has been playing hockey for two years and we are rabid hockey fans in our household!  And really, shouldn't we all be singing the praises of our local sports teams, especially when they're having a good season?  No one should have the franchise on that.

Lastly, the aforementioned commenter said our placing the EFF logo on Real Lebo was the icing on the cake in our copy cat ways.  Well, folks, it was Mike Madison himself who suggested I put the EFF logo on our site in the hopes the locals would play nice.  Thanks, Mike, for being a friend and supporter of Real Lebo.  There's plenty of room in our town for more than one blog.  (FWIW, the EFF logo would've made its way to our site anyway since my husband is a founding member of that organization.)

C'mon, folks, be like Mike:  play nice.  As for me, I'm off to watch the Pens meet (beat?!) the Flyers!

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things...

Okay, if the title of this blog post means you will NOT be able to get that song out of your head tonight, well, apologies in advance.  That said, I often pause to think about my favorite things in Mt. Lebanon (and Pittsburgh, too) and driving around town on this snowy morning got me to thinking about a great many of them.  In no particular order, here goes!

1.  Mt. Lebanon Floral on Washington Road.  Who can resist pressing their nose up against the window to gaze upon the many shimmery things?  Certainly not me.  Even better, their shatter-proof Christmas tree ornaments are now half off (fifty cents each!) and it was a passel of these ornaments on the lower branches of our tree that kept our cats from wreaking havoc.

2.  More Than Words on Washington Road.  Have you seen their latest window display?  Candy-apple-red jesters prancing about and making this lovely fine paper goods store even more beautiful.  Barb is also selling her holiday schwag at 50-75% off.

3.  Anne Gregory for the Bride on Washington Road.  I simply ooh and aah every morning when I run by this store, since the dresses on display would make any bride (including this one) want to renew her vows STAT -- and get a new dress for the occasion.  The strapless bridal gown presently in the window is embroidered with the sweetest flowers and makes me pine for springtime.

4.  The wine bar at Il Pizzaiolo on Washington Road.  Do I spend too much time Uptown?  Maybe, but the wine bar behind the main dining room at Il Pizz is a cocoon made for winter.  From the well-worn leather couch facing the fireplace to the backlit blue bar, this room is as suited for romantic couples as it is for a gaggle o'pals.  The adjacent outdoor patio is covered in snow right now but will be welcoming diners in a few short months.

5.  A walk in Bird Park any time of year.  Arguably my fave among our many parks and parklets.

6.  The fall father/son campout at Bird Park.  Seeing as how I'm neither a father or a son, I've never attended this event but my husband and son return from it every year filled with stories.  Kudos to the Rec Department for doing such a great job on this one.

7.  Impromptu sledding hills all over town.  My family is especially fond of the double-dip hill right outside the ice rink and while we've eyed the hill on the median between Woodhaven and Longuevue Roads, we have yet to sled it.

8.  Dave Hornack and Gwen Rosen at the Mt. Lebanon Ice Center.  Dave runs the hockey programs at the rink and I love how he takes the time to learn the name of every little kid in class and what they do/don't do best.  Gwen has taught countless kids how to skate and her friendly-but-firm approach helps keep our kids safe -- and she sports the best sweaters in town!

9.  Ri Van Tran Tailor Shop on Alfred Street.  I love how these folks can tailor absolutely anything and didn't laugh at me when I asked them to stitch a dime-sized hole on the wool strap that goes across my favorite winter boots.

10.  The pig roast at Atria's on Beverly Road in the good ol' summertime.  Yes, I know it's still many months away but the thought of those succulent chunks of pork enjoyed on the breezy outdoor patio is keeping me warm as I type this.

What are your favorite things in Mt. Lebanon?

Blue Devils Boys Hockey Team Gains Steam

From the morning's P-G:  the Lebo High Blue Devils Boys Hockey team is undefeated in its last four games and carries a 6-5-2 mark on the season.  The team went undefeated and was state champ in its bracket less than four years ago.  Whether this year's campaign is about rebuilding or not, Coach Dave Hornack is confident that his charges have what it takes to win.

Yet another great hockey team to follow in these parts -- go Blue Devils!

Cool Calendar!!

This month's Pittsburgh magazine advertised a really cool Pittsburgh calendar that is worth noting. It is called the "Know Where to Go 2010 Pittsburgh Events Calendar". This is not your run-'o-the-mill calendar! It is also a complete guide to events in and around Pittsburgh listing over 900 things to do throughout the year! It also has historical highlights, a special neighborhood supplement and 13 full-page photos. What's even cooler is that if you purchase the calendar you are entitled to free monthly email updates! Talk about being in the know! It is available at local bookstores and at wheretogoinpittsburgh.com.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Denis Theatre needs your help now!

I run by the old Denis Theatre most mornings and gaze wistfully at the handful of abandoned theatre seats huddled in the lobby.  It must've been something to have an art house theatre in our town and to easily make a night of it by seeing a high-quality movie and following it with dinner or a nightcap.  Sure, I could still do this by driving to Squirrel Hill but that's a much longer drive -- and there's no parking!

Anne Kememer, the energetic presence spearheading The Denis Theatre Foundation, is trying to do something about this, and make Mt. Lebanon a better place along the way.  Studies show that a business district is greatly enhanced if it possesses one of three things:  a movie theatre, a bookstore or a grocery store.  The Denis is already in place, it's just waiting to be brought back to life.  When it is, it should be a magnet for folks from throughout the South Hills who want to make a night of it...with parking!  Anne's vision for the Denis is much more than simply an art house screen or two.  She envisions a social/cultural space that could host small parties, live music, community meetings and even encourage the filmmakers of the future.

What Anne and the Foundation need most right now is our collective help so they can close on the purchase of the building by February 2010 and move forward with the initial $2.5 million renovation phase (phase one gets the theatre up and running, phase two adds community features).  "We need the people who have the means to make this happen to step forward now or we could lose the Denis forever," says Anne.

To that end, The Denis Theatre Foundation is staging "Raise the Curtain," a full-tilt party/fundraiser in the stunning Mt. Washington home of Peter Karlovich (MtL Class of 1978) and Steven Herforth on Saturday, February 6.  Tickets are $250 per person ($230 is tax deductible) and ticket sales will be the primary revenue producer.  Send your request for tickets to Anne at akemerer at denistheatre dot org.  If your dance card is open, please consider this worthwhile event.  You'll have a great time while giving back to the community you call home.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Curbside Convenience

I was reminded by this month's mtl magazine that curbside Christmas tree pick-up will be on Sat, January 9 and Saturday, January 16.  It's been requested that you try to leave your soon-to-be-recycled trees at the curb the night before.  Guess I know what I'll be doing on Friday night!

Also worth mentioning that the 2010 trash pick-up schedule in the same issue of mtl is incorrect -- the correct version can be found at the municipality's web site as well as the customer service desk in the municipal building.  FYI, this year's trash pick-up schedule is the same as last year's.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Antiques Anyone?

Antiques Anyone?

For all of you antiques buffs out there...I thought it might be worth noting that Lebo's website calendar includes an intriguing event in February....February 20-21 - The 35th annual Pittsburgh Antiques Show and Sale will present more than 40 of the top local and regional antiques dealers at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Saturday, February 20th and Sunday, February 21, 2010. For more information, got to www.hgcp.org, or contact the Historical Glass Club of Pittsburgh at 412-734-5279.

Sounds like a fun way to beat the winter doldrums!

Snowshovel Patrol

Our wonderful crossing guard at Foster Elementary, Larry, tipped me off this morning to the Snowshovel Patrol, a joint venture between the municipality and the school district wherein students needing community service credits (to qualify for National Honor Society, etc.) will come and shovel the walk for elderly or disabled citizens within 24 hours of a snowfall.  The service is free of charge.  I immediately informed my neighbor across the street, a senior no longer able to shovel her lengthy walk and who is already paying a snow removal service that is irregular at best!  Suffice it to say she was pleased to receive the news.

Requests for the Snowshovel Patrol should be submitted via email to Judith Kolko at jkolko at mtlsd dot net.  It's my understanding that there is a backlog of requests so you may need to be patient.  Then, you could always resort to plan B:  enlist a middle- or high-school student in your neighborhood to shovel your walk for five, ten, twenty dollars.  If our street is any indication, these kids are looking for work!

Winterfest

Noted in this month's mtl magazine that Winterfest is on its way.  Ice sculptures, ice bar, artists, musicians, mittens...what's not to like?  I, for one, can't wait!  And I'm sure that goes double for my winterized son.  The party's on Washington Road so save the date:  February 13, 2010.

Winter Farmer's Markets

My friend (and fellow Lebo resident) Lisa Auel tipped me off to Hills and Heights, a community blog in Richmond, Virginia, and what caught my eye most was a post on Winter Farmer's Markets.  Are there any such markets in these parts?  If not, is Mt. Lebanon a candidate for one?  What say you, Commercial Districts Manager Eric Milliron?

Goodness knows I'm sad to see our Lebo farmer's markets close up every October and would love to have a winter market -- but then I do love root vegetables and the delicious stews and soups you can make with them.  If Lebo was the go-to place for fresh winter shopping, maybe we'd be onto something.

Back to Hills and Heights, ya gotta love that blog -- they even post about lost dogs, along with pup pics!  Now THAT'S a community service.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Shed a Little Light???

Shed a Little Light???

There is so much to love about Mt. Lebanon and Pittsburgh in general...and that means a lot coming from a woman who never dreamed she would ever leave New York City!

I do have a question for some of the people who have lived here longer, or are just "in the know". What's the deal with the pollution stats for Pittsburgh? We currently are #1 in the country for the worst short-term particle pollution - even worse than LA. Does this apply to Mt. Lebanon as well? I have googled this question so many times and have not found an answer. The fact that Mt. Lebanon residents can use "Pittsburgh" for mailing address purposes makes it all the more confusing....

Anyone???

Heart O'My Town: Nancy McKenna

We'd like to start an occasional series called "Heart O'My Town" wherein we shine a spotlight on someone who makes Mt. Lebanon special.  First tip o'the cap goes to Nancy McKenna of Howard Hanna Real Estate in Mt. Lebanon, the amazing realtor who helped us find our house.

When we started our long-distance house search in 2006, a friend of a friend referred us to a colleague of Nancy's, who found herself pretty busy and consequently referred us to Nancy.  Talk about a gift!  Nancy and I emailed steadily throughout the summer and fall of 2006 and fell into a sympathetic rhythm:  I'd scour local listings in Mt. Lebanon and surrounding communities and email Nancy with questions about each.  She'd patiently answer them and ask even more questions, working to hone in on exactly what we were looking for.  A visit to the Pittsburgh area in fall 2006 allowed us not only to see a number of houses ("kickin' the tires," said the husband) but to cement the fact that we wanted to make this place our home.

We returned in the spring of 2007 to buy a house and came with a list of thirty or so listings we wanted to see in Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair.  Nancy mapped it all out so we'd maximize our time between neighborhoods and communities.  It wasn't long before we knew Lebo would be our home and within a couple of days, decided to bid on a house.  Suddenly finding ourselves in a bidding war on a house that hadn't had a taker in months, we decided to punt and needed to come up with a new list of houses to consider -- with only one day left on our visit!  Nancy and I pored over our "B" listings well into the night and found about ten to look at the next day.  The stars aligned to bring us into a house that we initially thought would be too dark and too dated but, in reality, had charms beyond what could have imagined.  We put the first bid in on our future home hours before our plane departed and finalized the deal a couple days later.

A Mt. Lebanon native, Nancy continually amazed us with her knowledge, and love, of her town and her willingness to work tirelessly on our behalf.  I think of Nancy most mornings when I run by her office on Washington Road and the thought of her cheerful presence always makes me smile.  She is truly the gift that keeps on giving!

Handyman Wanted (Duh)

I'm sure the question I'm asked most often in Mt. Lebanon is "do you have a good handyman?"  Well, I used to have a very good handyman but he died suddenly about three months after we met him and availed ourselves of his services.  I'm sure he was the best handyman we've ever had and I still think of him (and his widow) every time I drive by their tidy Lebo street.

So we, like so many others here, are still in search of a good handyman.  What makes a good handyman for me?  Consideration:  show up when you say you'll show up.  Craftsmanship:  your work needs to hold up.  Creativity:  bring your good ideas to our project and let's merge them for the best possible outcome.

If anyone has a good recommendation, I'm sure it will be appreciated by many!  Double points if your rec is a Lebo resident.  And thanks to Hilary Chiz for suggesting this valuable topic.

Hoop Hoop Hooray!

I admit I don't follow sports much, except for the Penguins and my own son's hockey team.  So, it came as a nice surprise to see in this morning's Post-Gazette that the Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils boys basketball team is ranked #1 in WPIAL Class AAAA and sports an 8-0 record so far this season.

From this proud hockey mom to all the Lebo basketball moms (and dads, of course):  hoop hoop hooray!  And while I'm not sure how the Blue Devils' girls basketball team is doing, I know they were invited to a prestigious national tournament last month so my guess is they've got game, too.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Play Nice

Comments are welcome at Real Lebo so long as you play nice -- snark will have to live elsewhere.  Who'll be the judge of what's snarky and what's nice?  Kristen and me.  It's our play space so we make the call.

I ran a listserv for a women's org in San Francisco that grew to over 3,000 members and over the course of several years, we only had to kick one person off the list -- a guy!  Running the list involved moderating posts as well as deciding when a thread had gone on too long and no longer served the community.  We also had a three-strikes rule -- if you were warned about tone three times, you were off the list.

I'm just sayin'... 

Traditions

My husband and I hosted a New Years Day brunch in San Francisco for over twenty years.  The many friends (and their kids) we'd accumulated over the years would come over to eat, drink and be merry and feast on Fen's singular (and secret-recipe) waffles.

On moving to Mt. Lebanon 2+ years ago, we didn't know if we'd lose the annual Waffle Brunch or if we'd be able to re-create it in our new home.  For New Years Day 2008, we gamely invited a few of the families on our street who also had kids in the elementary school.  To our pleasant surprise, they all came over -- and brought delicious baked goods along with them!  The groaning board was def that at the start of the year.  As the year went by and we looked to Waffle Brunch 2009, we invited even more families as our son's circle of friends grew.  Interestingly enough, most of the families were still from our sweet street, a wonderful combination of Lebo natives and transplants from across the U.S.

We're still groaning from Waffle Brunch 2010, a terrific gathering of neighbors who are also friends and feel like family.  Like other non-natives with no immediate family in the area, we've had to work a little harder to create community.  That said, Mt. Lebanon's welcoming, familial vibe has made it an easy -- and rewarding -- task.  There is no doubt in our minds that we're making friends we'll keep for a lifetime.