First, let me take a moment to thank all my friends around the area that helped with a job search that was recently completed. Losing a job is a humbling experience, however, the compassion and willingness to help shown by my friends and neighbors was even more humbling. This experience has forever changed me for the better. On to the blog.
As has been recently blogged on BlogLebo, there is much public discussion about an analysis of the Mt Lebanon High School project that was done by structural engineer and Mt Lebanon resident Dirk Taylor. The documents have been posted by BlogLebo on the link provided above.
As one of the two members of this Board that have over the last year been consistently voicing a dissenting opinion in the pursuit of such an expensive and questionable project, I have been silent about the Taylor Report in the hopes that other Board members would take the opportunity to publicly respond to its content and questions. Perhaps other members will choose to respond at a Board meeting, perhaps they will respond later, or perhaps they will not respond at all. I will take this opportunity to give some feedback on the report. As always, the opinions are mine and may not reflect the opinions of others on the Board.
First, it is important to understand who the author of these documents is. Dirk Taylor is not just a regular structural engineer that happens to live and work in Mt Lebanon. Mr. Taylor has done extensive work for the District over the last number of years. He understands the needs of the District and more importantly understands the architecture and the guts of our buildings. I believe he fully understands the risk he has taken in putting this type of a report out into the hands of the public.
On the functionality of the School:
Mr. Taylor points out some of the biggest misconceptions that I believe the public has had regarding the need for this project. Information has been given to the public that says that our high school buildings are falling down creating a safety issue for our kids and that our current building is not able to adequately educate our students. On both counts I agree with Mr. Taylor. One cannot prove that these statements are true. The public has been shown pictures of broken pipes and has been given tours of the building that show where water has been leaking and where ceiling tiles are missing and these visual anecdotes are used to convince the public that the need for new construction and huge expense is great. However, our architects came back and said that they were perfectly willing to renovate Building B at an EXTREMELY reasonable cost of about $14 million. B Building is the second oldest building at the high school and is also the building that contained some of the oldest plant (water and electric) in the complex. With proper repair and maintenance over the years we might not have some of the issues that are presented as being dire today. Despite its age and its antiquated plant, we have been assured that this building will be renovated in a “like-new” fashion that will better prepare our students for the future at a cost that is far less than construction/renovation at any of the other buildings. Think about this renovation of B Building the same way we thought about renovating our elementary schools a few years back. As for how well our students are performing in our existing buildings, what more do we need to look at than our test scores. We have consistently been comparable to other high-performing districts in both SAT and state standardized tests. While we do have room to improve in areas, I have complete confidence in our new superintendent to take us in the right direction on this front no matter what decision is made with the high school construction project.
On Travel Distance:
I went through the most current drawings and tried to figure out exactly where this design criteria has been met. I didn’t see it and this topic makes for a great question to present to the architects.
On Classroom Size:
Pennsylvania Department of Education says that a classroom needs a minimum of 25 sq ft per student. That is their standard. Apparently the renovation of B Building will meet this standard. Mr. Taylor’s description of how the walls are reconfigurable in C Building is new to me. If I did hear it before, I didn’t put much thought into it. Mr. Taylor’s description of how things can be reconfigured in this building to meet PDE standards is very intriguing and has the potential to significantly impact this project in my opinion. Mr. Taylor does address the issue of asbestos later in his report and I think it important to get the facts on what condition ALL of C Building is in from our current architects. I think many in the public and on the Board have been convinced by the architects that C Building needed to be torn down because it has too much asbestos and because it would be more expensive to renovate than it would be to simply replace it with a new academic wing. Mr. Taylor’s report at the very least raises some good questions that ought to be asked of our current architects with regards to the possible re-use of C Building.
On Building Size:
What more can I add? The building size we are being shown today is much larger than other area projects at Bethel Park and Baldwin despite us not having many more students. It is much larger than what has been recommended for the number of students we have. I have pointed this out on my blog on more than one occasion. Mr. Taylor’s comments regarding ways to manage the construction of a renovation project using underused or unused space seems very logical to me. Since eliminating temporary classrooms has been a top priority of the design team to this point, perhaps there is a way to incorporate Mr. Taylor’s suggestion into the renovation of the building.
On the Sports Facility:
There is a pedestrian walkway connecting the new academic wing to the sports wing because the property is zoned for a single building. I know, a pedestrian walkway doesn’t seem to be part of a contiguous building but according to the law it is. It is my understanding that without the pedestrian walkway the sports facility would be in violation of current zoning laws. But, that is small potatoes. Mr. Taylor’s suggestion about re-orienting the pool and then building additional levels for wrestling and fitness on top of the extended pool complex seems very well thought out. Can it be done? It’s another great question for our current architects. If by chance this solution is selected, we cannot ignore the need to then do upgrades and/or expansions to the current field house and locker rooms. I understand the design team is working on figuring out where to put the two displaced tennis courts under the current design. I have not seen if there was a similar effort underway for the softball field. If you have followed the Board and Commission closely, you know that we already have a rather serious issue with having enough field space for our athletes. Removing another practice field from the mix will simply complicate things further.
Again, great points on destroying a perfectly good building to build another like-use building. I can see how that defeats the spirit of LEED/Reusable design.
On Some Omissions:
One omission was mentioned above. What the new athletic complex would have given us is some new locker rooms and space that would have taken the place of the field house. Without that complex we would then need to do something with our existing field house and locker rooms. This work could end up being significant. The second difficulty is figuring out how to improve band/music instruction in the building under Mr. Taylor’s solution. While our current staff and students seem to make the current environment work, I wonder if there is any way to improve it outside of a simple stale renovation of existing space
All in all I find the report very helpful in trying to determine what direction to take the high school project. The report confirms some of the concerns I have had for some time. I trust Mr. Taylor’s experience and insight and hope the rest of the Board will not take this analysis as simply another email from a disgruntled resident.
Thanks for reading.