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$80 million Schenley tab challenged

By Christian Morrow
June 27, 2008
The New Pittsburgh Courier

Roosevelt sticks with his numbers

Whether or not a proposed school district referendum on saving Schenley High School referenced estimates to renovate the Reizenstein, Milliones and Frick buildings, the school’s supporters say it unfairly pits Schenley against the rest of the district by using an inflated repair figure for the 92-year-old building.

“This is not a $74 million question of whether to save Schenley or not,” said Vivian Loftness, Carnegie Mellon University architecture professor, in a letter to the school board. “The question is, ‘should we repair and upgrade a grand, crafted school building that has 50-100 years left, or should we repair and upgrade buildings with 20 years of life left, sinking our tax dollars into oblivion?’”

The district-wide referendum was created by solicitor Ira Weiss and school board director Theresa Colaizzi after the New Pittsburgh Courier reported that two engineers and a former Schenley principal said there is no asbestos or structural danger at the building, and repair estimates include costs for fixing problems that do not exist.

The issue was on the agenda for the school board’s June 23 meeting, but Colaizzi stormed out when one engineer, Nick Lardas, was allowed to speak. Lardas repeated what he and fellow engineer Jet Lafean told the Courier—that the building is as safe as any in the system.

Roosevelt said that Lardas’ engineering credentials don’t stack up to the district’s experts.

“Mr. Lardas is a reputable contractor,” said Superintendent Mark Roosevelt. “He is not an expert in the field.” Lardas said he never claimed to be an asbestos expert.

“I’m not making an analysis, I’m reading from their report,” he said. “I never put myself out there as an asbestos expert, but I do have enough expertise to read a report.”

Reiterating numbers Roosevelt revealed during a November press conference, officials said samples from the plaster failures in the building revealed asbestos levels “two to six times the acceptable limit.”

Though he was unable to attend, Lafean, experienced in handling asbestos as well as more dangerous agents such as plutonium, said the district’s own documents show that to be false.

“Their reports show all of the plaster samples submitted for testing to Wiss, Janney Elstner Associates in Cleveland, Ohio, came back as containing 00.00 percent asbestos,” he said. “The lab also told Roosevelt all the samples were from recent patches and none were the original plaster he has been falsely telling the public is falling from the sky,”

School Board member Randall Taylor pointed out that temporarily moving Schenley’s science program to Westinghouse—where there is already a lab—and putting the remaining students in Peabody—where there is space, would allow time to renovate Schenley.

“It would save about $25 million from the cost of renovating Milliones, Reizenstein and Frick,” he said. “If those costs are in the $50 million to $60 million range—how can we afford that and not Schenley?” He did not receive an answer.

Celeste Taylor, parent of a Schenley student, said Lardas was “No. 1 in her book” for putting his reputation at stake, but believes the majority of the board will follow Roosevelt’s recommendation to close Schenley.

“Who are their constituents—us/students or the superintendent/foundations,” she said. “I feel the future of our school district has a very large gray cloud above it and I don’t see it moving away anytime soon. I sincerely hope I am wrong.”

The board is scheduled to vote on the closing next month.

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