Tuesday, January 27, 2009

High School Project Discussion Meeting

As mentioned yesterday, the Board held a meeting to discuss the possible alternatives for Mt Lebanon High School. There was an article in the Post-Gazette this morning outlining some of the details.

As the article mentions, Options 1 and 1A look to be off the table. It was the consensus of the Board that these options did not adequately address what it is that this community wants. While the options may very well make the building fine to educate our kids in for another 30 years, Mt Lebanon is a town that wants to be at the forefront of education while respecting its rich traditions. I agreed with the rest of the Board that the full renovation options did not get us to where we as a community want to be.

Option 2A was also taken off the table. While it seemed like a pretty good idea going into it, the cost associated with the option was too close to the option for a brand new school. The difference was just short of $2 million. I'd rather the Board spend the extra $2 million and get a completely new school.

Option 2B was introduced by Director Remely. Last night was the first time this idea came to light. Based on Mr. Remely's comments last night, the idea came about largely because of his belief that a referendum for one of the options costing over $110 million would be difficult to pass. Using cost per square foot numbers outlined by PJ Dick, Mr Remely and Mr Silhol thought there might be an alternative to renovate 200,000 square feet and construct a new building for around $85-90 million. I said that I was intrigued by the idea. Yes, it is a little late in the game, but so was the idea I presented to the full Board just a few weeks ago. I'd like to give them some time to more fully flesh out the idea and see if it is a viable one.

Option 3 was the other option left on the table. This is the option to build a new high school.

Options 2 and 3 would require voters to pass a referendum allowing the District to take on more debt than State law limits us to. Pennsylvania law says that school districts can have debt up to 225% of three year average annual revenues before they need to go to referendum to get an exception. Right now the District can take on an additional $110 million in debt before we have to send this to the voters.

I have my doubts about a referendum passing in this economy but we have had a lot of community feedback regarding going for a new school. While I will not make my decision right now, I do not feel as if I would stand in the way of sending this to a referendum. I say this only because I think the voters in Mt Lebanon will vote down the referendum and send this back to the Board.

Last night I mentioned that it might be possible to follow dual paths. If this Board votes to send this issue to referendum then it makes sense to have a backup plan in place. I do not think it is in this Board's best interest or in community's best interest to have a referendum fail and then just keep trying until we get one passed. We need to have something that we can easily move to in case of referendum failure. This is why I suggested that in combination with going to referendum that we also embark on an more full investigation of the proposal I put out there in conjuncton with a Guaranteed Energy Savings Plan. The GESP is something that was developed by the Governor's Green Building Council and allows government entities to upgrade energy systems and to pay for those upgrades using the savings generated by the more efficient systems.

The reason this may work is because if a referendum fails, the Board cannot discuss a high school renovation/construction project for five months. What happens then? Using the GESP program should not constitute major renovation/construction and should be allowed under the law. This plan may allow us to address many of the deficiencies at the high school (windows, boilers, and roofs are all included as allowed expenses) while not having to invest a lot of our own money. It would allow us to continue to educate our kids in the same building while paying down our debt and saving for a major construction project in 2017.

I think this Board knows what the community wants. What it wants can only be done by referendum right now. The proposal I put together is the only thing out there right now that can get us there without a referendum.

Thanks for reading.