Thursday, January 28, 2010

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.


  1. debbied37@gmail.comJanuary 28, 2010 at 11:24 AM

    Thanks Elaine. Dan Remeley in particular has repeatedly said that the final costs should come in below the maximim of $113. In the current climate, this should be a reality. But we need to show our support for the project to keep it moving through the process so these final figures can be ascertained!

  2. I'm happy that the board voted to move forward with the project, and I agree that it needs to happen as soon as possible. I love the idea of adding incentives to speed up the process to save money. Incentives tied to projects like this do get results.

    Also, I think that the community needs to understand that the $113 million number is a ceiling set by the current design. To lower the ceiling to $95 million (that might be closer to the actual cost) would mean going back to the drawing board, literally, and changing the design to bring down the cost estimate. This only means months more delay and higher cost in the long run.

    We have to hold the board to the commitment that they will do everything possible to bring down the actual cost and not spend the savings on additional tweaks to the design. I have every faith that they will act in this manner and in the best interest of our community to save as much as possible on the cost of this project.

    I encourage every effort to speed the process and get the shovels in the ground, because time is money for this project.

  3. PJ Dick, who has been doing the cost estimates for the project has stated on a number of occasions that they have taken the current market prices into account as they have prepared the cost estimates for the project. We should not anticipate a significant savings due to the current market conditions - they are already baked in to the cost estimate we have.

    Also, it is simply not true that the projects to compare are a $103 million renovation only and a $113 million renovation and new project - the difference is much greater. At the time the $103 million renovation only cost was developed, the renovation and new project was estimated at over $130 million. The renovation only option was never looked at again and the architects were directed to find ways to reduce the cost of the $130 million + version, which they did get down to $113 million (or $95 million based on Dan Remeley's projected savings). It seems only fair to assume that the same $17-35 million in savings could be wrung out of the renovation only option. That would make a fair comparison more like $68 to 86 million for renovation only vs. $95 to 113 million for new and renovation.

  4. Chris, thanks for your post. I'm not sure your assumption of equal savings translating to a necessary-repairs-only scenario is valid, and this scenario would take much longer to effect (3-5 years vs. 3 years on a more comprehensive renovation) and displace students into trailers. Further, a repairs-only scenario would likely need to be redone in 10-15 years, re-burdening the taxpayers paying for this go round a second time AND at a much higher rate since things only get more expensive.

    By not having addressed the high school's issues correctly and in a timely manner 5-10 years ago, we have backed ourselved between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I think it's high time we get this done and done right so we only pay for it once in our lifetimes.

  5. Even if we assume we'll only get 1/2 the savings that was achieved from the $130+ million (now $113 million version), we would still be talking about comparing a $95 million dollar project against a $113 million project. Either way, it is a much bigger difference than $103 vs. $113 million.

    Also, the "repairs only" version is really much more than that with new mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems along with new roofs and other upgrades. The useable life of most of these systems is typically more like 25-30 years, (just like in new construction) so I don't see why we'd be re-doing things in only 10-15 years.

    I do agree that we are mostly in this position because basic maintenance and normal upgrades to the building were not completed over the past 5-10 years (or more). The problem is, what confidence should we have that we'll maintain a new high school over the next 5-10 or more years? The current 5-year budget projection does not increase the amount we are spending on basic maintenance and upgrades to our buildings and the amount we have been spending clearly isn't enough to keep our buildings fully operational.

  6. Can we stop using temporary classrooms/trailers as an excuse not to do something differently? If we're willing to invest over $100 million for this "once in a lifetime" project, we need to be prepared for the reality of the inconvenience that will certainly accompany it.

  7. Chris, I have all confidence that our board will bring this project in below the $113 million maximum budget. The board (Messrs. Remely and Cappucci) have already outlined savings in hand. The citizens of this community need to be engaged in this process and see to it that the board delivers NOW and gets the project done right.

    It's 2010, by golly, and I don't see how 21st century teaching methodologies can be effectively rendered in a 1930s building. I keep flashing back to pictures of Einstein's lab -- and he was Einstein! Can't imagine that he could make any great discoveries (or even have an a-ha moment) today if he was in a lab that was so last century.

  8. Chris, Dan Remely outlined many cost-savings ideas, such as pre-purchase of equipment, that would be outside the scope of the estimate based on the current design. This means that significant cost-cutting is realistic and attainable. I also believe that the bidding process in this climate will bring lower costs for the work. The architect cost estimate is not a true approximation of what a competitive bid will be. That's why many projects now are receiving significantly lower bids than pre-build estimates suggest (see hotel story in Elaine's post).

    Does anyone have a link for Remely's suggested cost savings that he discussed at the last meeting? That might help this discussion.

  9. I don't understand the huge concern over 'temp trailer' classrooms. I would expect some sort of temp buildings to be used- if only to quicken the project. The whole school isn't going to be in them, and clearly, the classes that will wouldn't be ones dependent on labs/studios/special equipment/etc...

    I graduated in 2004 from a high school in Texas almost identical to Lebo in stats/scores/demographics (I looked this up for a comparison I could understand when we were neighborhood shopping). My favorite and most valuable class (by far) was in a 'trailer' classroom. It was a college-level class on current events, politics, and cultural studies- I consider it the most important class of my high school career. We used tv and did extensive media-based projects. The 'trailer' classroom in no way hindered our learning experience. What made that class so thought-provoking and challenging were the teacher and the curriculum.

    Are people that concerned over temp trailer classrooms? I don't understand why... or maybe I'm just getting the wrong vibe?

    Elaine- while I understand your concern about updating our building for modern teaching methods, as someone with a degree in architecture and a master's in education, I'm a little taken aback by your statement.

    "It's 2010, by golly, and I don't see how 21st century teaching methodologies can be effectively rendered in a 1930s building."

    I understand what you're getting at, but that's a shaky statement. It's 2010 by golly... and I can live a perfectly modern life in my 1930's house. To say that 1930s academic architecture is only relevant to that era is a disservice to the architect. Besides, there are plenty of buildings MUCH older than anything here over in Europe that are still being used quite fully. Elements of the structure need immediate attention yes, but that sounded like the architecture itself in its entirety is a problem.

    I hope that doesn't sound snappy- not my intention, forgive me if it does. I understand the meaning you're getting at and agree with it. The wording itself just really rubbed me the wrong way as someone who's background is in both fields.

  10. Tess, thanks for your post and welcome from Texas! I, for one, love seeing transplants in Mt. Lebanon and Kristen (my co-blogger) and I are both transplants who arrived here over the last several years.

    To your point, it is my understanding from sitting in at many, many School Board meetings that our labs are quite outdated, which is why I brought Einstein into the conversation. Elaine Cappucci, who is running point (alongside Dan Remely) on the high school renovation on behalf of the School Board, can inform you more fully as she has often spoken to this issue. I'm sure she'd happily engage you over email.

    I am a fan of adaptive re-use and recently wrote an article on the many fine examples of same in Baltimore. I'm very happy that a lot of our existing buildings at the high school are being saved and renovated to like-new condition so that they remain viable for decades. And it's no accident that my husband and I purchased a 1930s home in Mt. Lebanon -- we looked at newer homes in Upper St. Clair and other communities and were far more excited about the property we got.

    Apologies if my poor word choice conveyed displeasure with the buildings as a whole. As a writer, I pride myself on getting the wording right. Some of the buildings at the high school (namely, Building C) are problematic but we are lucky to be able to preserve a good many of the original as well as newer structures.

  11. Elaine- Thanks for the warm welcome :)

    No worries- I understood what you meant and heartily agree with that point. Things like labs and studios provide opportunity for experience with the tools of today- vital for a relevant, informed education. It was just the architecture student in me that got irked by the wording, which to me insinuated the idea that the 1930s architecture itself wasn't 'relevant.' I was pretty sure that wasn't what you meant to say... seeing as how most of us do pride Mt Lebanon on the charm of that era. :)

  12. Tess, welcome to Mt. Lebanon. I'm a transplant from Michigan. No temporary classrooms is part of the 15 design criteria that came out of the DeJong study at the start of this process. I haven't seen the discussion that went into that point--the DeJong study took place around the same time as our move here. However, space issues for trailers on campus would be a problem. Also, I've never heard a discussion of cost of renting trailers. I did hear that Baldwin district put temporary classrooms in either the gym or cafeteria to very unsatisfactory results. I think that was discussed at one of the meetings.

  13. Chris, you make some valid points concerning costs. However when our neighbors are creating new 21st century learning centers for their children it is not enough for us to update our mechanical systems and expect us to remain competitive. Our classrooms are small and cramped, several of the classrooms have no windows or natural lighting and when compared to our neighbors our facilities are antiquated.
    The plans were presented in July of 2009 and the residents voice their opinions at this meeting and then the School Board voted. The most expensive projects were overhelmingly rejected by both the residents and the board.
    The national economic downturn is showing signs of easing and there are opportunities to be taken advantage of as we continue to move forward.

  14. Rob,

    You seem to feel strongly about the benefits of 21st-century learning centers. Do they increase test scores? If we pay the extra money to build one, will our students have better outcomes? Will they get into better universities?

    I ask because these things are important to most parents. I ask because we have a choice about where to put our limited educational funds. The more we spend on facilities, the less we have to spend on everything else, including teaching. But investments in teaching, unlike investments in facilities, have been shown to improve student outcomes.

    So is there reason to believe that the extra expense of building a 21st-century learning center, instead of a more-modest renovation, will provide greater improvements in student outcomes than a similar investment in teaching? If not, why shouldn't we give our students the greater benefits that those funds could purchase in teaching?


  15. I agree with Tess about the trailers. They are no big deal. We are paying for our conceit. That's the first thing I would trim from the budget. We should be more humble and save our money too.

  16. Nancy-
    Thanks for clarifying that- especially since we weren't around for the beginning of this process. I can definitely understand the campus space consideration- I wasn't aware that was an issue. Even more of one as I sure cannot see gym or cafeteria temp classrooms being effective at all.

  17. Tom,

    Our test scores are traditional high. Can a new buiding help raise those scores higher? That is questionable. Also questionable is how long we can sustain these scores in the current building or the current building with only mechanical upgrades.

    Additionally, there are case studies that point to the benefits of Day Lighting and how facilities do impact the learning process.

    And when compared to the project plans that were presented to the residents last summer, this current plan is a modest renovation.

    Thank you for you response, Tom.


  18. Rob,

    Thanks for your response.

    I think you're missing something important. If our community truly can afford to spend $100 million, and we spend it all on facilities, none of that money will go toward teaching. There's no way to escape the math: the more of that money we spend on facilities, the less we have to spend on everything else, including teaching.

    Let me put you in the driver's seat. If I gave you $100 million or so dollars and put you in charge of our school district, with the power to do anything you wanted, how would you choose to spend that money? Wouldn't you do the research, look carefully at all the evidence, and invest that money in the mix of educational options that promises the best student outcomes?

    Given the research on how little school facilities affect student outcomes, would you choose to put all of that money into facilities and none into teaching?

    Now, what may be pushing you toward the higher facilities investment is the belief that we don't really have a choice. We have been told that the "Band-Aid" option is almost as expensive our current plan. Who wouldn't pay a few million more to step up?

    But if you look at the data from construction-costing experts RSMeans, the PA Dept. of Ed., and even from our district's past consultants, you'll see that it is realistic to make our facility safe, sound, and adequate for our genuine needs for around $80–85 million. That's what I mean by more modest.

    Given that we do have a choice, then, should we choose facilities over teaching? That's the question at the heart of our decision. Like you, I want a better high school. But I also see that we can have a better high school, one that gives us everything we genuinely need, and we can also invest more in teaching.

    Don't you want that extra teaching?


  19. Tom, thanks for your post. I'll mention that a majority of School Board members believe they can bring this project in around $95 million. That puts them about $10 million away from your vision. Progress.

    To your point on "geniune needs:" what's genuine is definitely subject to interpretation in this community! Example: the needs of senior citizens and how they would use the building (pool, public spaces, etc.) has been taken into account in this renovation. Are their needs integral, or even connected, to the overall teaching experience? I think not, and yet off-hours use has been factored in as a key component of the renovation. One of the many layers of this process...

  20. Elaine,

    You're absolutely correct about the community-service aspects of our current renovation plan. The studies on student outcomes don't account for this value to the community, and we ought to factor it in. (Still, the math suggests that this value, too, comes at the expense of teaching. Nevertheless, most reasonable people accept that school facilities exist to serve the entire community, not just parents and students.)

    One point on comparing the $95-million expected cost of the current plan to the $85-million cost of what could be called a more typical renovation. The first figure reflects savings from economic factors, such as attractive financing and construction costs, that would also lower the second figure but have not yet been factored into it. A fairer comparison, then, might be between $95 million and $75 million for final costs.

    Still, those figures are a lot closer than $115 million and $85 million, so you are right: we are making good progress. :-)


  21. Tom,

    We will disagree and point each other to data and case studies that support our positions all day long. I think that we can agree that we disgree on this issue.
    I get the impression that you feel that workplace conditions do not motivate the people using that space and I feel that a work place environment does motivate the people using it.

    The HS building contains a great deal of asbestos and it needs to be abated. Other school district's did not need to face this problem. And that is helping to driving our costs up.

    Our elementary and middle school's are bright, energy effiecnt and wired buildings.
    Our High School is the Crown Jewel in our Educational System where there many windows that are taped shut, lockers that fill with water due to the leaky roof, the computer labs are cramped, the Art Room is dark and dingy, students wear layers because some areas of the school are warm and other very cold, the seats in the auditorium are ripped and duct taped....and this is the Crown Jewel in MtL Education System. Again, how long will a building in this condition sustain our current test scores?
    Most employees would not tolerate these conditions in their work place or their homes; so what does it say about a community that would tolerate it in their High School? The HS is in this condition because previous School Boards have let it deterioate to this condition.

    The current project got to this point through a process. A process that included many opportunities for residents to stand up, talk and voice their concerns. The School Board has voted on many occasions and the project continues to move forward. Recently, I have urge a certain SB member to work with his fellow members on finding ways to bring down the costs, such as through Private/Public Partnerships. The idea of P/P Partnerships was something that this member proposed themself about 1.5 -2 years ago when we first spoke to each other concerning the project. However, he has coosen a different path, one the has widen a rift in the community and one that this member knows that they do not have the votes to move his agenda forward.
    Again, there were forums for residents to voice their concerns before the SB voted on which option to persue.

    Dan R. Sue R., Mary B., Elaine C., Jo P. and Ed K. are determine to keep costs as low as possible. Sue, Elaine and Mary experienced first hand the cost over runs during the elementary renovations and have learned lesson. This SB has great leaders; granted we need to keep them on the straight and narrow however it is important to also trust them. They are good people w/excellent skills and abilities.
    Open and serious debate is important and I thank you, Tom for your comments.

  22. I find it so heartening to see the dialogue that has been taking place here. This project has been and will continue to be a long process. I will not stop at the Act 34 hearing, at the ground breaking, or even at the conclusion of the renovation. It is so important for all of us to stay involved and be sure that this huge undertaking stays on track. It is equally important for all of us to try to help the board in any way we can to help keep costs down. I feel strongly that it is vital that we show the board our support in any way we can, and try to assist in any way we can. There have been so many community volunteers already, perhaps more will come out of the woodwork who can aid in this project in some way. Mt. Lebanon is teeming with intelligent, hard-working people who have so much to offer. I hope we can help the board to stay focused and on track. I think we can.

    And my two-cents about facilities vs. test scores and paying teachers - I firmly believe that a state-of-the-art facility will attract the best and brightest teachers to our community.

    Thanks all for staying engaged, and in all seriousness, I deeply appreciate the respectful tone that has prevailed even with disagreements. I know I function better under those premises. For me it makes for better and more productive dialogue when emotions don't get in the way.

  23. Rob,

    Thanks for your comments. I can see we're gaining ground. :-)

    One thing I'd like to discuss however, is "agreeing to disagree." If we were talking about whether dark chocolate was better than milk chocolate (it is, by a mile, BTW) or whether the Beatles was the best band ever (no comment), those are something reasonable people can disagree about because they are ultimately matters of preference.

    But we are discussing matters of fact or fact-to-be. Whether we agree on them or not, they are or will be a concrete reality. This renovation will go forward in one form or another, and our community's scarce educational funds will be spent in one way or another, and then reality will have its way. There will be an outcome. And it is that outcome we are now discussing. Right now, you and I, and the rest of the good folks on Real Lebo and Blog-Lebo and in our community, are trying to put our heads together to see if we can share information to make better, more accurate predictions and decisions about that outcome.

    So when I hear "let's agree to disagree" in a context like this, it sounds a lot like, "I'm not interested in considering what you have to say." I know that that wasn't your intent, but I do want to encourage you to keep an open mind. As Elaine has pointed out things to me, like the benefits of the planned renovation to our community's seniors, I have listened and been willing to adjust my conclusions in light of that new information.

    Will you do me a favor, then, and take a look at the U.S. Government Accountability Office study? I know you think we can "point each other to data and case studies that support our positions all day long," but the GAO study really is as close to a final word on this subject as one can imagine. Two researchers at the GAO worked on the project from September 2008 through October 2009. Here's what they did: We identified studies dating back to 1980 and selected those that were either from peer-reviewed journal articles or were methodologically rigorous studies from (or sponsored by) other sources, such as government institutions. Two GAO staffers, one analyst from the audit team and one methodologist from the research group, systematically reviewed each of the studies selected, evaluating the design, measurement strategies, and methodological integrity and entering this information into a database. From more than 100 studies that we initially selected, 24 were selected to be included in our review... In addition to these 24 studies, we reviewed 4 additional studies that focused on the relationship between facility condition and teacher outcomes rather than student outcomes.

    What did they conclude? None of the studies examined was able to conclusively determine how much school facility conditions contribute to student outcomes relative to other factors, such as student demographics, and none proved a causal relationship between school facilities and student outcomes.

    What that means is that the GAO examined just about every piece of credible evidence in existence and concluded that none of it showed that school facilities have any causal effect on student outcomes.

    I know, it sounds crazy. You, like I once did, probably have a strong gut feel for what kind of difference facilities make. You probably think they don't make as much difference as teachers do, but that they do have some important effect. If you really look hard at the data, however, and the GAO researchers did, you'll find something unexpected: that even with 30 years of studies and with tens of researchers investigating, none of them have been able to credibly show that the causal effect of facilities on student outcomes, if it exists, is meaningfully different from zero.


  24. And here's one important thing that is often misunderstood about those findings: Many reasonable people, when they are confronted with this evidence, suggest that, yes, school facilities may not improve student outcomes, but they do help attract better teachers, and better teachers do improve student outcomes. What you must understand is that when researchers perform causal analyses using observational data (and here they must because it's politically and economically infeasible to do randomized intervention studies on school facilities and students), they measure the total causal effect (or actually its upper bound, starting with an association and subtracting out likely confounding effects). This total causal effect accounts for all mediating effects, such as the hypothetical mediating effect of better teachers on student outcomes. Thus if better facilities did attract better teachers to the degree where student outcomes were improved, this mediating effect would have shown up in the total effect that the studies measured. That the total effect could not be discerned from zero means that the mediating effects, if they exist, have a total effect of zero, too.

    In other words, the existing evidence argues strongly that the total effect of school facilities on student outcomes is so small that it cannot be reliably measured, let alone useful.

    Now there are limitations to these analyses, the biggest being an emphasis on test scores. (But test scores are important: they are probably the single most-important factor in determining whether our students qualify for top universities.) So, to compensate, we must be willing to consider the benefits to our community from things like athletics and swimming pools, which we value but the studies mostly ignore.

    I'm sorry to have written so much, but causal analysis is tricky and easy to misinterpret, so I wanted to take the time to be clear about something important but counter-intuitive.

    Thanks for listening. :-)


  25. I'm going to bed and that's a fact. If anyone disagrees with me, well, we'll have to agree to disagree.

    (Sorry, Tom, I couldn't resist.)

    Seriously, tho, Tom, you took two (long) posts to make one point. At some point, we're going to have to pivot to something else -- you've made your point, we've heard it and some will agree and some will disagree. Most of us don't have the time to continue discussing one point.

    This all begs the question: what of the other fine threads on this blog? Let's get some comments going on those! Real Lebo isn't a one trick pony and our town shouldn't be, either. There's a lot to talk about and celebrate. We're spending a lot of time discussing one issue and while it's an important one, for sure, there is other stuff to talk about as well.

  26. Tom,

    So If I follow this correctly, we can have a leaky, ineffiecient, worn out building and it won't effect our student's motivation and their test scores will remain consistent? We will continue to attract the best and brightest teachers with aged facility? And will this facility continue to draw high caliber people to our community?
    I'm curious Tom, do you have children at the HS or have you done a tour of the facility?
    I've read your blogger's profile and we share many things in common; a love of gardening, cooking, espresso and pie (my fav is a blueberry Glace from a small road-side stand, named Monica's, in the Finger Lakes region of NY). However, I saw no mention of children and I was wondering how familar you are with the actual building?
    I admire you command of the data but must admit that I am a bit skeptical.

    Thanks for your insight, Tom.

  27. Sorry for the long comments, Elaine. It's just that when I say more facilities comes at the cost of less teaching, nobody believes it at first because it's counter-intuitive. It's only when you work through the research, understand why it's credible and why our intuitions fail us on this issue, that the implications become apparent. It took a long time for me to get it, and I didn't want to deny anybody else the opportunity to see it for lack of a clear explanation. (Okay, and I'll admit that I'm a research guy and think paradoxical findings are totally fascinating and can't stop talking about them.)

    The end!

    P.S. To change the topic – completely – you ought to try Iovino's Cafe. My wife and I had dinner there tonight and it was great. I didn't see it on your list of favorite things, so maybe it's new to you. :-)


  28. Tom, I appreciate your passion for this subject, and also for your fact-finding interest. I took another look at your link. I then did my own search. You might be intrigued by the following link which states the opposite of your own link. Take a look and let me know what you think.

  29. Tom,

    As a point of clairification and not to beleaguer the point but when I said "we argee to disagree" my next sentence went on to say that I got the impression that you felt that workplace conditions do not motivate the people using that space and I felt that a work place environment does motivate the people using it. I wasn't being dimissive of you or your view point. This forum is Mt Lebanon's polite blog page. I was merely tring to clairify your stance as opposed to mine and move on. After all the school is a workplace.
    The project is moving forward. The real question is how can we assit the board on its lower costs. As I stated earlier, I have tried to get the one dissenting board member to stay true to his idea and look into alternatives and he refused and then choose another path which has created a rift within our community.
    If you know of individuals that are Grant Writers and are willing to volunteer their time to work w/the school board, I would be happy to make the introductions.

    Again, Tom, Your voice is valuable to the process and Thank You.

    Enjoy your Espresso!


  30. Rob,

    First, thanks for hanging in there! I gave you a lot to read, and I appreciate your willingness to give it earnest consideration.

    Now, your questions.

    You write, If I follow this correctly, we can have a leaky, ineffiecient, worn out building and it won't effect our student's motivation and their test scores will remain consistent? We will continue to attract the best and brightest teachers with aged facility? And will this facility continue to draw high caliber people to our community?

    In short, yes, that's what the research argues. More precisely, it argues that the strength of the causal effect of facilities on student outcomes, both directly and through mediating factors such as student motivation and attracting better and brighter teachers, is so small that it cannot credibly be said to be non-zero. In other words, it suggests that student outcomes are “insensitive” to variation in facilities, through any means.

    Now, if you find that result hard to believe, you have to ask yourself why. What evidence are you using to support your disbelief? For me, the only thing that stood between me and believing the research was my gut, my intuition. My intuition whispered to me that facilities must have some important effect. But when I pushed myself to support the case that facilities do have some profound effect on student outcomes – support with hard evidence and not just my gut – I had a hard time. That's when I started believing the research more.

    As you may have divined, my wife and I have not been blessed with children. I hope you won't hold that against us or allow yourself to believe that we don't care about our community's children or their educations.

    I have not taken a tour of the high school. The reason I have not is because I do not need to be convinced that our high school has serious problems that must be solved. I have said time and again that as a minimum our community must spare no expense at making our high school safe and sound. No one need convince me of that.

    Given that almost everyone agrees that we must make our high school safe and sound, the question I have focused on is, How we get can the high school we need while preserving some of our limited funds for additional teaching?

    Based on the construction-costing data I cited above, I have good reason to believe that all of the options offered to our school board were extraordinarily expensive. Our site and our facilities do present unusual challenges, but the price tags on the options we received were not merely unusual; they were extraordinary. (If you look a this chart I have prepared from 2008 PDE school-construction data, you'll see that even the “Band-Aid” option we were offered is more expensive than 90 percent of comparable construction. How can an option that supposedly represents the low end be in the highest 10 percent of the pricing spectrum? It's in the highest of the high end. It's extraordinary.)

    In short, all of the choices our school board was given were extraordinarily expensive. Even by choosing modestly, they were forced to overspend – by a lot.

    What I am struggling to do now (and would like your help with) is to get some of that overspending back so we can invest it in teaching, where it will do our students more good.

    Thanks for listening. :-)


    P.S. Rob, I see you left another comment. Give me some time to think about it and get back to you.

  31. Kristen,

    Thanks for the pointer to the article.

    I don't want us to get into a battle of the links, however. I want us to carefully weigh every piece of evidence, not try to "cancel" one link with another.

    So let's weigh the evidence.

    You offered a link to an article in a magazine, one that appears to have a financial incentive to encourage school-facilities construction, authored by someone who repeatedly confuses association for causation. I offered a 13-month, nearly exhaustive examination by the U.S. GAO, a disinterested government research organization, in which two qualified researchers considered 30 years of credible research and weighed the evidence of 28 studies selected from a review of over 100 studies.

    How much weight do you think reasonable people should assign to the evidence offered by our two sources? How much weight do you assign to them? Have you read the methodology section of the GAO's report to understand just how thorough and exacting this research was?

    Please don't fall into the trap of thinking this is a battle of the links. We're talking about the education of our community's children. It's important. We need to consider all evidence, not just say "I can find a study to match your study," but read each study, weigh its evidence, and consider its implications carefully.

    So I'm not going to dismiss your article, even though an initial reading reveals serious problems. I am going to carefully consider every claim it advances. I'll get back to you.

    Thanks again for the pointer.


  32. Tom, parenthood is a blessing that came relatively late in life to Fen and me. It's never too late. That said, I understand how it's a very personal decision.

    As to a school tour, Tom, I urge you, I implore you to take a tour of the school. I urge everyone in this community to do so. The school's condition is appalling and you don't really get it until you see it for yourself. Even more, I urge you, and everyone, to talk to our high school students. I have done so many, many times (actually, do it all the time since they frequently babysit for us) and I am saddened to see how dismayed and dispirited they are about the conditions of their school. They may crack jokes about it at times but the jokes ring hollow, even to them.

    What have these kids told me? Plenty of stories about lugging around a 50-lb. backpack all day long because their locker is flooded and, as a result, unusable. Wearing too much, or not enough, clothing to school because some parts of the building are excessively hot and others freezing. And then there's the many doors on campus and how easy it is for someone to get in, or out, and back in again. I don't have a daughter at the high school but if I did, I think I'd be more than a bit concerned. And this is only the beginning. Truly, is this the best we can do for the children of Mt. Lebanon?

    On the chance that I'm preaching to the choir, I won't belabor the point. But this does go straight to my point, which is that we need to do something NOW. The community has been examining and, consequently, exacerbating the issue for YEARS and it's time we stop talking the talk and start walking the walk. We have a plan on the table and it's a good one. Let's roll.

    A neighbor who's a Pitt professor and also teaches at the high school recently asked why there are holes/gaps in the windows at the school. I commented that they were probably waiting till the renovation to make the fixes seeing as how it doesn't make much sense to throw good money after bad. He still doesn't get this mess.

  33. Tom,

    I would never hold not having children against you or anyone else for that matter, I was merely trying to get a grasp on your perspective.
    I'm a stay at home parent and do lots of work w/the PTA. My children went to Foster Elementary and now I have a son at Mellon Middle School and a son at the HS. I could speak w/the pricipal at FES & MMS and arrange a tour of those facilities for you. I am sure that at FES they would allow me to be the tour guide as I know the building well and perhaps the same at MMS. As far as the HS, I could arrange for us to do a tour w/a Dist. employee. This might give you a different perspective.

    I am familar w/the GAO and their independence. But I'm having a hard time wrapping my arms around their findings for many reasons. Most have to do w/creativity and learning and the environment in which it occurs. There is a relationship despite the GAO's finding.

    Once again, this is a time to help the school find ways to save money. Those ideas are the ones that are the most pratical and useful. We have discussed these other issues in years past, residents have voiced their concerns and votes have been taken. Cost savings need to be found to save money for the things that you have previous discussed, such as the upcoming Teacher Contracts.

    Thanks, Tom.


  34. Hi Tom,
    Thanks for your post. Please don't get me wrong. I didn't mean to imply that my link is right and yours is wrong. I think it is safe to say that virtually anything can be found on the internet. I don't profess to have all the answers - wish I did. My hope is to stay engaged and assist the board in any way I can to make this project as successful and low-cost as possible.

    Further, I would never ever judge anyone as to whether they chose to have children. I am a firm believer in freedom of choice. I can say, however, that for me personally, as a parent, I have a depth of love and devotion for my kids that I never knew before. I would move mountains for them if I had to. I have two children and one is a special needs child, and I have learned that if I don't advocate for my kid(s) no one will. We don't need to belabor where the line should be drawn in terms of quality of facility. I do know that I myself function better in a facility that is for example well-lit, or that has good ventilation. I would not function well, for example, in one of the basement classrooms in the present high school that has no windows.

    While I do believe that test scores are important, I also feel that quality of life and quality of experience and exposure is also vital. I also believe that test scores depend on a variety of factors. I think that often schools set up their curriculum and "teach to the tests" in order to ensure good test scores, which I think is wrong too...but that's a whole different issue altogether.

    I appreciate your input and hope that as this project progresses we can all assist in its success while hopefully keeping costs down as much as possible.

  35. Kristen,

    Thank you again for the link to that article which says new schools improve test scores. It's a perfect case study of how well-meaning parents and school-board directors are misled into spending extra money on facilities, thinking it's great for education, when in truth it's not. How could an article make a claim as bold as Guess what? Shiny new schools do improve student test scores!, cite at ton of research to back it up, and then be completely wrong?

    Here's how.

    If we examine every piece of evidence offered in the article, we will find that none of it supports the author's thesis. (Depending on your interests, the following is either going to be very fascinating or very tedious. Prepare yourself accordingly.)

    Claim 1: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching found that student attitudes about education directly reflect their learning environment. Here the claim is that facilities are associated with student attitudes. There is no claim of causality (which is what we care about), nor evidence that if better facilities did cause better attitudes, those attitudes would cause improved student outcomes. This piece of evidence does not support the author's thesis. The author makes the common mistake of thinking association is causation.

    Claim 2: Specific building features related to human comfort ... have been shown to influence student achievement. The author uses the word "influence" here, which suggests causality. If that's true, this claim does support the author's thesis. Let's reserve our judgment, however. I suspect the author may be confusing association for causality.

    The author continues, Research examining student achievement scores and school facilities' quality ratings (using the percentage of students in free- and reduced-price-lunch programs as a means to control for socioeconomic status) has shown differences of between five and 17 percentile points in achievement scores of students in functional buildings compared with scores of students in poor buildings.

    Here we have indications that the claim of causality may be unsupported. The research the author refers to appears to have lacked proper control for factors known to cause both better facilities and better student outcomes. That research would therefore inaccurately attribute uncontrolled-for associational strength to causation. (That's why you have to read the studies.) Let me explain.

    What's the difference between association and causation? Let's say we sat enjoying espresso at a coffee shop on Washington Road and, as the hours passed, counted the number of people walking by and the number of cars driving by. After a while, we would note an interesting pattern: when there were more people, there were more cars, too. That's an association; it's when you observe that one variable varies with another.

    But what about causation? If the association we discovered had represented a causal relationship, say that people walking caused cars to drive by, we could change the number of people walking by to cause a corresponding change in the number of cars driving by. We could get a bunch of our friends to walk down the sidewalk and thereby cause a corresponding bunch of cars to drive down Washington Road.

    But that's not going to happen, is it? We know that the relationship doesn't work that way. We know that external factors cause both more people and more cars – the time and date, society's norms for working hours, etc. – and that the association we discovered doesn't mean that people walking causes cars driving, or that cars driving causes people walking.


  36. (Part 2)

    But what about school facilities and student outcomes? We know about many external factors there, too. Wealthier communities, for example, can not only afford to buy better facilities but better everything, including teaching. Other factors such as the adult education level, ethnic homogeneity, and community culture also play a role in both facilities and student outcomes. Because of the influence of these factors, we expect there to be an association between better facilities and better student outcomes. That's not news.

    But if we change a facility to make it better, will that change cause a corresponding change in student outcomes? That's the question that matters.

    Unfortunately, researchers cannot answer that question by conducting the equivalent of our send-friends-down-the-sidewalk experiment. It's politically and economically impractical to run intervention trials when it comes to expensive facilities and children's educations. So researchers must rely on observational evidence, like our counts of people walking and cars driving, to glean insight into the hypothetical causal relationship.

    The problem with observational evidence, however, is that it will include the effects of those pesky external factors, not just the causal relationship of interest. So researchers must attempt to "subtract out" those other factors. And that's where things get tricky.

    To subtract out the external factors, researchers have to know what those factors are, and then they must "control" for them. If they miss any factors or fail to control for them adequately, the influence of those factors will be attributed falsely to the causal relationship being measured.

    In the case of the studies in the article, the only control is for the portion of students on assisted-lunch programs. This attempt to control for socioeconomic effects is, well, crude. Further, the studies fail to account for other external factors. (I've seen this model used in several studies, flawed though it is. I suspect it is popular because lunch-program data is easy to get.) Thus in interpreting the findings – that better facilities are associated with 5–17 percentile-point improvements – we have to consider how much uncontrolled-for external influence remains.

    Given the power of socioeconomic effects and how crudely the studies controlled for them, and given that the studies lacked other controls, it is easy to believe that there is a lot of uncontrolled-for external influence, more than enough to account for 5–17 points of variation. In short, the study's claim of a causal relationship is weak, being largely unjustified by the analysis performed. (I suspect that the GAO's researchers would have rejected these studies for lacking analytical soundness: "We excluded studies because, for example, they did not provide sufficient detail on the analytical approach or failed to control for other plausible explanations for differences.")

    Again, the evidence does not support the thesis of the article's author. Let's move on to the article's next claims.


  37. (Part 3)

    Claim 3: Students in non-modernized buildings scored lower on basic skills assessments than those students in modernized or new buildings. In one study, building age accounted for as much as 3.3 percent of the variance in students' scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Again, "accounted for" represents association, not causality, and 3.3 percent is small enough that most researchers would consider it statistical noise (5 percent being the least-rigorous threshold in common use).

    Claim 4: A before-and-after study of renovated schools in Syracuse, N.Y., found improved achievement among students in the refurbished buildings. This claim might refer to causality. I'll have to check the actual study to see, however. (OK: I had some more time and found what I believe to be the referred-to study, Maxwell, 1999. It's scanned and hard to read, but from the study's abstract page, it's clear that the researcher claims only an association: "Among the study's findings are the importance of timing ... renovation projects, and a demonstrated positive relationship between upgraded school facilities and math achievement". Further, in the conclusion, the researcher writes, "A larger sample and a methodology that will help to determine causation is next step in this research agenda"; p. 9.) Again, the article's author claims mere association as causation.

    Claim 5: Another research effort compared students at the newest and the oldest buildings in a district. Those attending the new school out-performed their peers in the older school on all available measures of achievement. Again, this is a claim of association, not causality.

    Claim 6: “Classroom Acoustics,” a guide published by the Acoustical Society of America, states that higher student achievement is associated with schools that have less noise interference. Same: association, not causality.

    Claim 7: In Washington, D.C., researchers looked at public schools to determine how parental involvement and building condition related to student achievement Same.

    Claim 8: The nature and quality of the built learning environment also have been shown to affect teacher attitudes, behaviors and performance. Studies have concluded that teacher retention and attrition rates are affected by the quality of school facilities. This is a claim of causality but on intermediate outcomes, not student outcomes. To the extent that these outcomes mediate a supposed causal relationship between school facilities and student outcomes, they would already be accounted for in the research on that relationship (see my comment from yesterday for a full explanation), which cannot distinguish the strength of that relationship from zero. Again, this evidence does not back up the author's thesis.

    There ends the article's claims about student outcomes. After examining all eight, none provide credible evidence of a casual relationship between school facilities and student outcomes.

    I hope you can now see why it's important to scrutinize the claims made not only by articles in the popular press but also by the underlying research studies. The research is complicated stuff, and writers often misinterpret or misrepresent its findings. The problem is, it's our community's parents and students who are going to be the worse for it.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this thing.


  38. But you haven't seen our current building.

  39. Rob,

    Can you explain how that affects Tom's analysis? I don't understand.


  40. Casey, I know that I myself urged Tom to tour the high school. While I appreciate Tom's analysis, I find it largely theoretical and while that has value, I also place value on intangibles like seeing the building and talking to students and teachers who use that particular complex on a daily basis. Their distress and dismay on the sad state of the building also informs my thinking on this project and what needs to be done.

    I don't know if that's where Rob Papke was going with his question but that's how it landed with me. Have you seen the building as well? what are your thoughts on it?

  41. Elaine, you make a good point. One group that has been incredibly quiet throughout all of this debate is the teachers. I realize they were part of the DeJong study (heck, who wasn't); but I'm surprised that we haven't heard more (or anything) from those teachers who support the project in its current form or even from those who would rather see a lot or some of that money go to programs etc instead of bricks and mortar. I would have expected them to be a very vocal component of the discussion, regardless of which side they are on.

  42. Dave, it's my understanding from speaking to community members (and it's been voiced at School Board meetings as well) that teachers, especially the high school principal, have been very involved in the conversations about the high school. Dr. Davis, the high school principal, was also on the Ed Spec Committee that morphed into the Design Advisory Committee. That our educators may not choose to participate in the give-and-take on local blogs may say something about their good sense as well. ;-)

  43. I'm not sure Mr. Davis speaks for all of the teachers, but I may be wrong. I'm also not suggesting that they blog. However, at the upcoming Act 34 hearing I'm sure we'll here from a bunch of individuals and groups regarding their stance on the project. I think it would go along way if we heard someone speak on behalf of the teachers at this hearing, especially for many of the undecideds out here like me. After all, the teachers have and will continue to spend the most time in this building regardless of what we do. They are also tasked with educating our kids and I'm sure they realize that every dollar spent on this project is one less dollar that is available for other things. I think it would go along way if they shared their collective opinion with us - assuming one is a available. Just a thought . . .

  44. Elaine,

    I appreciate the importance of seeing the building in its current state. I've urged Tom to talk a tour, of sorts, as well. Seeing the problem first hand will help understand why feelings are so strong about the renovation. Still, his analysis of the research is sound and I don't think it can be construed as theoretical because it lacks first-hand encounters with the building. Tom's arguments are made based on the data alone while yours, and mine, are also mixed with our visceral reactions (feelings) to the problem at hand.

    You've asked my thoughts, and if I've walked through the building. My daughter plays basketball at the Gold Gym and my wife attends evening classes held by Pitt in the oldest part of the complex. I've been lost in the corridors from time to time and I could never claim it's a state-of-the-art building.

    Here are my thoughts: I haven't found a single person who will tell me they aren't in favor of renovating the high school. It needs work, serious work. My babysitters agree. They work full-time under those conditions. I've read a number of comments belaboring the importance of helping the school board in "any way we can" and I agree we should be partners in this endeavor. So we must stop making the question be, "should we renovate the high school?" Yes, we should. Everyone agrees.

    The important question the school board must have an answer for is this: at what point does spending reach the plateau of appreciable returns? Our students score very well in national rankings and have for some time with the current complex. That doesn't mean I think we shouldn't do anything, but it does allow me to make an association between a building such as ours and high test scores. Unfortunately it's a silly association to make, and it would be even more strenuous to suggest that buildings in disrepair produce above average students.

    For the sake of my point I'm going to simplify this example. Lets suggest that our student body is producing A- results with the current high school, in comparison to public education across the country. How much do we need to spend to create an environment where students are capable of producing A+ work?

    At what point are we spending on facilities just because we can without any appreciable increase in results past a theoretical "perfect"? It is possible that it costs $113 million to create the opportunity for a 10% increase in student body results. I'm still skeptical.

    If our student body was producing collective C-level work in comparison to the country I'd certainly feel like we should spend more to create a better environment.

    I'd like to have my question answered, though: Our student body performs well above average. At what point does spending on facilities reach the plateau of appreciable returns in student education?

    If a school board member can pick a number and make a case based on statistics and evidence I will be pleased. I have strong feelings about the state of the high school, too, but those feelings shouldn't replace evidence.

    My eldest is in 2nd grade. I'd like her to attend a high school in better shape than the one we have today. I'm willing to spend my money (proportionally to everyone else in the community) on a facility, to the point that it will provide a demonstrably superior environment for her to excel. But not beyond that point.

    I like the idea of our elected politicians pledging to keep costs down. I hope each dollar is spent with corresponding evidence that it can improve our students' educations. It's up to use to keep score. J. William Fulbright famously said, "In a democracy dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not in its taste, but in its effects."

  45. Casey, thanks for your thoughts. You said "It's up to us(e) to keep score." This is something Kristen and I have said many times -- it is up to us community members to stay vigilant on this project and be sure that it comes in on time and at, or below, budget. When School Board members say they hope to bring the project in around $95 million and are working hard toward that end, we believe them and will continue to stay engaged in the process and work toward that positive outcome.

    We don't go to all those School Board meetings for nuthin'...

  46. I think Casey's comments can be echoed by the large majority of Mt. Lebanon residents and I think mirror most of the comments that the School Board has received to date (privately and otherwise) from residents. I suppose my concern as one who has been involved in both my own home renovation and several commercial projects of significnat size is that the final tally doesn't usually come in 15-20% below the estimates. That's simply not the real world of construction projects, especially projects of this size and scope. I'm not sure how we're going to knock that much off the bill to get down to $95 million . . . and still get what we think we're getting.

  47. Hi Casey,

    I have followed Tom's numerous comments and data for the last few days. The most striking point to me is that he has not been in the HS building to see it first hand. As you have followed the prior posting or seen the building yourself your will understand. I have offered to arrange tours through FES, MMS and the HS for Tom and all I get is more theory.
    He has his point of view. I have mine. His are based on case studies, mine from volunteering in the schools. I respect his opinion and have moved on. That's all. Elaine nailed it.

  48. Dave, how can you profess to know how the "large majority of Mt. Lebanon residents" feel? There are 33,000 residents here, by golly! Have you personally spoken to the large majority of them? I'm not saying that's an absurd generalization on your part, perhaps more of an overstatement. ;-)

    What I can say with great certainty is that I see the same people, more or less, weighing in on conversations at this blog and at other local blogs, as well as at School Board meetings. I'm also stunned at how a great many of Mt. Lebanon's residents are completely disengaged on the high school renovation project. I'm not saying that's a good thing -- it just is what it is.

  49. Elaine,

    I presume from your last reply to Casey that, if the board can bring the project in at or around the $95MM figure, you are all for the project.

    I would like to hear back from the other commenters their thoughts on this figure (irrespective of whether the commenter believes it's an achievable figure with the present plan).

    I would also like to hear from everyone, including you, as regards the $113MM figure should the board prove totally unable to reduce costs beyond the limit they propose to set.

    Obviously this renovation of the school is important, but equally important is understanding the cost, both in terms of the burden placed on the taxpayers and in terms of the funds being directed away from educational programs and towards the facility. I'd like to know what everyone's threshold is.

    For me, personally, I am still puzzled as to why the school board did not forecast anything near the lower figure when doing their 5 year budget projections last year. (Or if they did, why they chose not to publish it.)

    For reference, their projections can be found here - they are the 3 "Forecast" documents under the April 13, 2009 heading. The key figures are the project cost (upper left) and the millage rate increases - the line above the "Demographics" line near the bottom.

    Instead, they only looked at a HS debt level of $117MM. Which leaves me wondering: when they became convinced that something close to $95MM would be possible, why not take the time to determine the different impact it would have? (Or, again, if they did - why not share?)

    My understanding is that they are now in the middle of some new 5 year projections, not yet public. I expect that, if they are truly committed to a target project cost of $95MM, we shall see a projection that indicates such.

  50. Rob,

    I would be delighted to take a tour of the high school.

    You still haven't explained why you think it will change anything about my analysis, given that I am already convinced that we must spend whatever it takes to make our high school completely safe and sound. Still, if you believe there is something about the high school's condition that upon first-hand experience will re-convince a person who is already convinced, I want to see it.

    If you set it up, I'll be there. Thanks for the offer. Also, I'd like to bring my camera. (Please let me know if you think photography will be a problem.)


  51. Tom, here's a pretty comprehensive slide show of the conditions of the high school, from the district web site. See it and weep:

    These photos are part of the DeJong study so they are from December 2006 or earlier. It's safe to say conditions have only gotten worse at the high school.

    This slide show should be required viewing for the citizens of this community.

  52. I can't help but feel like we keep talking past one another.

    The question isn't whether or not the unacceptable condition of the school's fundamental infrastructure should be renovated.

    I haven't heard anyone come out and say "let's not do anything to repair the school!"

    What I have heard is a lot of skepticism and questioning around two things:

    1. The right set of problems to focus on remedying, and
    2. The costs we've been presented for remedying them

    The estimates we've been given are at a per square foot cost that is approximately double what we have paid in the past. I don't understand how that's congruent with the statement that these are exceptionally low cost times to be bidding this project.

    If we can get per square foot rates more comparable to those previous rates, everyone in this community wins. I'd love to see that happen. But as it stands, until I see that surprisingly low construction bid come in, I have a lot of reservations about spending this much money and adding this much millage.

  53. Elaine,

    Thanks for the link.

    Still, I'd like to take the tour if I can. I want to understand the whole problem, not just the parts that made the slide show.


  54. To see if I can bring focus to the discussion, because Matt is right, there is a lot of cross talk here, I'd like to present the discussion's parts clearly:

    1a. Our high school has problems.
    1b. Therefore, we ought to fix those problems.

    2a. We also want educational improvements.
    2b. Therefore, we ought to invest more in our high school.

    Everybody agrees on (1a) and (1b). (I don't know why people keep talking about how bad the building is. Everybody already agrees; talking about (1a) over and over again is preaching to an already-preached-out choir.)

    The interesting part of the conversation is this: I (and the research) claim that (2b) is a terrible response to the problem of (2a). If you want educational improvements, invest in teaching, not facilities.

    Rob, do you have any reason to doubt my claim?

    (Important note: Repeatedly emphasizing point (1a) does nothing to weaken my claim because my claim was not predicated on a lack of belief in (1a). My claim is entirely related to the evidence of how ineffective (2b) is as a response to the problem of (2a).)

    Does this breakdown do anything to clear up the issues? The interesting part of the conversation is whether (2b) is our best response to (2a). I say it's not, not by a long shot.

    What does everyone else think?


  55. Tom,

    Please view the slide show that Elaine posted and I'll talk w/the HS principle about a tour.


  56. Rob,

    I had already looked at the slide show, and I did it again at Elaine's invitation a few comments ago. It didn't change my beliefs about point (1a) or (1b): I already believed that they were true.


  57. Tom,

    It is always wise to retain the best and brightest teachers however these teachers can't change the reality that our learning spaces are antiquated and are not wired for technology.
    I can't help but to wonder if this conversation hasn't already taken place. Perhaps when MtL's original single room school house was replaced by the current structure.
    I also can't help to wonder if arranging a tour for you is not a wasted effort when your mind is so firmly set.

  58. Rob,

    I have already said (repeatedly) that I believe (1a). Why do you keep reiterating that point?

    Do you not understand that (1a) does not affect my concern? (If you think it should, please explain what makes you think so.)

    Do you not understand that my concern relates solely to the inadequacy of (2b) as a response to problem (2a)?

    My claim, stated simply, is that if you want to improve student outcomes – after you make your facilities safe and sound – put your funds into teaching, not additional facilities purchases.

    Do you have any reason to doubt my claim?

    I'd like to respond to your wondering "if arranging a tour for [me] is not a wasted effort when [my] mind is so firmly set." During this entire conversation, have I not listened to and carefully considered everything that has been offered? (Can you show me one piece of offered evidence I didn't consider?) When Kristen provided a link to an article, did I not review everything it said, searching for something to support the belief that better facilities are an effective way of delivering better student outcomes? Did I not invest the time of writing several thousand words to explain to you what the preponderance of the research says? (And did you consider this evidence in earnest? Or did you dismiss it as mere "theory"?)

    I think a careful observer would have a hard time saying that I'm not considering the evidence in earnest.

    Do you think the same observer would say that you have given me the same courtesy? Is it your mind that firmly set, Rob?

    Please consider the possibility.


  59. Rob,

    You wonder "if arranging a tour for you is not a wasted effort when your mind is so firmly set."

    As I follow this conversation it's clear to me that the foundation of your opinion--that the current rennovation plan is the best way to spend (up to) $113 for our students' education--is the current state of the structure itself. If that's the case, giving Tom a tour of your primary evidence is the most compelling argument you can make. I urge you to follow through!

    Tom has provided the evidence, research, and analysis for the conclusion he's drawn. I assume in good faith that you've read it all and considered it. It sounds like he's offering the same courtesy to you (and has done, it would seem). I've also read him state several times that he's willing to have his mind changed with a compelling argument.


  60. This thread is starting to feel a bit frayed and maybe a snip will be in order soon. We seem to be going over the same stuff.

    The ground rules at Real Lebo are simple. First, play nice, as in be civil and respectful. Second, no anonymous posts. Third, if a thread goes on too long and no longer serves the community and/or a positive purpose, we'll snip it.

    There's no doubt we'll have lots of conversations on this matter. That said, there are plenty of posts on this blog begging for love. ;-)

  61. Eliane,

    I beg you, please do not snip off this thread. It has taken this long just to get to the point where the areas of miscommunication are becoming clear. Only now can the real conversation begin.

    It was only in the last few comments that I realized that Rob, I think, is conflating what I have identified points (1a) and (2a). I have asked him (and everyone who wants to chime in) to consider each one separately so that we can begin to make real progress.

    Please don't stop the real conversation before it starts.


  62. Tom, I hear you but please, don't minimize the many, many comments on this thread as not being a "real conversation." I'm sure a great many of us believe we are having a real conversation right here, right now on this blog and have been since this thread started. It just doesn't serve if it devolves into the nuances of your high school tour. Perhaps you and Rob Papke can convene offline to set up the tour and then get back to us with some observations.

    While I appreciate your input, Tom, many of your analyses are quite dense and not everyone will be willing to weigh in on them. I know you've put several thousand words into a single post (or so you said!) so I'm sure there's some good stuff there but a lot of busy people simply cannot slog through it. And yes, it can be intimidating -- we're not all researchers like you! A core tenet for writers is "know your audience." It's one that's helped me a lot in my work over the years.

  63. Trying to understand the personal impact, consequences, benefits, risks, costs and advantages to a $113 million construction project funded almost entirely by taxpayer dollars is equally dense, but we must slog through it, right? If not us, who?

  64. Elaine,

    Thanks for your response. You're right. I chose my words in the last comment poorly. Sorry about that. I didn't mean that the other conversation we've had here wasn't real, only that we just now discovered something new and important that explains why a lot of that earlier conversation was talking past one another and now gives us the chance to make real progress.

    In short, we were conflating two issues, which I have now separated into (1a) and (2a). Now that we can see them separately, we can talk about their implications more clearly. To recap, here are the two issues we are facing:

    1a. Our high school has problems.
    1b. Therefore, we ought to fix those problems.

    2a. We also want educational improvements.
    2b. Therefore, we ought to invest more in our high school.

    We're all agreed on (1a) and (1b), right?

    So let's take the conversation forward to (2a) and (2b). That's all I'm saying.

    Rob, Elaine, Kristen: Do you think (2b) is a good response to (2a)?

    My belief is that it isn't: the same money that would pay for (2b) would provide better student outcomes if invested elsewhere, in teaching for example.

    Please, what do you think?


  65. Tom,

    I contacted Dr. Davis, the HS Principal yesterday morning and he is more than willing to give you a tour of the HS facilities.
    You may contact him at to set up the tour and I hope to join the two of you if I may.

    Thank you.

  66. Rob,

    Thanks! I'll be in touch about the tour.

    Would you mind answering my question from above?

    I'll reprint it here, for clarity:

    1a. Our high school has problems.
    1b. Therefore, we ought to fix those problems.

    2a. We also want educational improvements.
    2b. Therefore, we ought to invest more in our high school.

    Do you think (2b) is a good response to (2a)?

    My belief is that it isn't: the same money that would pay for (2b) would provide better student outcomes if invested elsewhere, in teaching, better lab equipment, etc.

    Do you believe otherwise? If so, what supports your belief?


  67. Tom, I can't help but feel that you've synthesized your argument to fit a personal bias. You say "We also want educational improvements" but there are also a great many people in Mt. Lebanon, for example, who want athletic improvements (pool, fields, etc.). What would you say to them? I'm more academically-focused myself but I don't think we can discount a large swath of the community that prides itself on the Blue Devils' athletic excellence -- I've gotten that firsthand any time I've brought up the high school rifle range! And for every person who feels the rifle range is sacrosanct (just ask School Board member Faith Stipanovich ;-) there is another community group that feels equally strong about the pool, tennis, soccer, football, etc.

    Maybe that's why this has been a process that is inclusive of the varied stakeholders in our community.

  68. Tom and all, let me throw something a little different out there. I had a conversation with a local realtor last week (more on that in a future blog post) and she told me how Lebo always competes with Upper St. Clair for home buyers (no news there). That reminded me of a story told by another local realtor who had buyers looking at both communities. They had a son in high school and had him take tours of both our high schools. The boy said he absolutely wouldn't go to high school in Lebo and that the family should look to buy in St. Clair.

    As one of my editors said this week, "perception is reality for many people." Note: my editor was not talking about anything Lebo. But her point certainly translates to what people see and feel and believe. I'm not saying anyone should put up a Taj Mahal over there on Cochran Road, far from it, but I do believe our renovation needs to show that we've created a space in keeping with 21st century learning e.g. lots of light, wi-fi, center court for congregating/team work, on and on. People who look at the school aren't likely to look at the new boiler, they're going to look at center court. It's yet another variable, in this case a visceral one, that goes into the mix.

    Tom, I can't help but notice that this conversation at Real Lebo, as well as many of the conversations that take place at your own Blog-Lebo, go on among men. Kristen and I are trying to get more women, really more of everyone, to chime in so all viewpoints are represented. I only mention this because it is often women who are more responsive to visceral arguments, tho I trust we are equally attuned to intellectual arguments. ;-) I talk to a lot of women, usually moms, in town since they're what's most frequently on my radar as I walk my son to school, go to Market District, stop at Uptown Coffee, etc. I hear their perspective a lot. It surely informs my thinking.

    Now back to paying work. Talk amongst yourselves, please.

  69. Hi Tom,

    I have been following your conversation with Rob about 1a, 2b, etc. There is one thing to clarify that will hopefully make you feel a little better. The cost of the renovation includes all new equipment (for example, lab equipment, as you mentioned) furniture, etc. throughout the school. That will not be an additional cost after the renovation.

  70. I'm a woman, and I agree with Tom.

    Liz Huston

  71. Elaine,

    That's a good point about athletics. What I tried to do by making our discussion more concrete was to expose those issues, like athletics, that were hard to see. When we blend them all together, it becomes hard to see clearly how each contributes to the final outcome, both in terms of good and bad.

    Athletics is a real issue. Our community ought to give it due consideration. But how can we do that if we can't see the issue clearly? Our community ought to have those discussions about how much we want to pay for athletics, knowing that athletics provide many important benefits but also come out of the same pot that pays for everything else and, therefore, that more athletics means less of other things.

    So, to keep the conversation moving forward, if we restrict ourselves just to education, just for the sake of conversation, do you think that (2b) is a good response to (2a)?

    And, so that we don't ignore athletics, how much of our total educational pot do you think we ought to invest in them? (As for me, I think athletics are important. I learned a lot of lessons from my volleyball days and believe that athletics are an effective way of helping students prepare for the teamwork and competition, the victories and losses, and the conflict and camaraderie of modern life.)


  72. Elaine and Kristen,

    By they way, congratulations!

    Your blog is making a difference. There are meaningful conversations occurring right now, right here, thanks to you. This thread, for instance, has over 70 comments. Wow! That's a lot of conversation.

    Thanks for making it possible. :-)


  73. Tom,

    To answer you question about 2a & 2b, yes.

    And the milage rate difference between doing just 1b vs 2b is not that much. Once I receive those #'s from the district I will share them w/you or you can contact the district yourself and make a request. Also, at the public forums held last summer the majority of residents that choose to participate choose what you refer to as 2b and rejected 1b, for many reasons. The School Board then took that input and voted for what you refer to as 2b. The vote was 8-1.
    This plan will better utilize existing spaces, reduce our 3 floor cafeteria to 1 level thus creating more efficiences & man power hours, and the building will be made much more energy efficient saving taxpayer $'s over the life of the building. This can not be done under your plan.
    The taxpayers spend 1m$/yr on HVAC for the HS, alone. W/2b that cost is projected to save us 30-40%/yr.

    Thank you, Tom.

  74. Rob,

    Thanks for your response.

    I'd like to contest one of your claims, however. I'm doubtful that what I called (1b) was ever offered to the school board or public. What was presented as the "retrofit existing" option was extraordinarily expensive – in the top 10 percent of comparable and beyond-comparable projects.

    What explains why this "just-a-retrofit" option costs more than 90 percent of not just retrofits but full-blown renovations, renovation/new mixes, and everything short of 100-percent new construction?

    There is good reason to believe that all of the options that were presented to the board and public were extraordinary expensive and that we were not actually given the truly modest choices that we had.

    Can you offer a reason to believe otherwise?


  75. Tom,

    As I have stated in early posts, our school contains asbestoes, lots of asbestoes. No matter what is done to the building it must be removed and that is an extra cost. For whatever reason Balwin and USC didn't have this issue to contend with. They also didn't have an auditorium spaces to re-do and they didn't have to re-do their kitchen/cafeteria.
    As I stated early, our cafeteria is spead on 3 separate floors w/1kitchen and this creates lots of extra manpower hrs. and is inefficent to operate.
    I have sat at these meetings, listened, have asked questions and spoken personally w/the architects.

    Your modest choice does not represent that much of a difference in millage rates than my modest choice.

    Thank you, Tom.

  76. Good morning folks....74 comments sounds like a good number to me. Time to snip this thread...thanks for all of your comments and opinions...I trust they have all been conveyed by now...time to move on...we will not be posting any further comments on this thread. Thanks for your interest and understanding. Feel free to jump onto another thread though! Happy blogging!


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