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PA Department of Education Construction Guidelines Get Reviewed by Senate and House Committees

By Ronald C. Yochum, Jr.
June 29, 1998

Testimony of
Ronald C. Yochum, Jr.
Member and Secretary, Board of Directors, School District of Borough of Bretnwood
Assistant for Public Policy, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation
before the
Pennsylvania Joint Legislative Air and Water Pollution Control and Conservation Committee
and the
Pennsylvania Senate and House Education Committees


Chairman Argall,

Members of the Joint Committees

I am very honored to have the opportunity to report to you today the negative effects the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Basic Education Circular of December 1990, or the “BEC”, had on the Brentwood School District. I will begin with a brief background.

Brentwood, Pennsylvania, located 5 miles south of downtown Pittsburgh, is a very close-knit traditional community; an old trolley suburb with elements of a small town atmosphere infused with 1920’s to 1950’s-style suburban living. People who come to live in Brentwood generally stay, as well do their children and their children’s children. Every house is within walking distance from the other. We have two neighborhood elementary schools located at each end of our Borough and one Middle-High School facility in the center. The elementary schools are within walking distance of everyone’s home, making it convenient for working families with small children. Generations of Brentwood citizens have attended our elementary schools. They are part of our identity. They are a part of our community. They are part of our soul.

Early, in 1991, the former Brentwood School Board set out to bring our schools up to current standards. At the time, the school construction consultants who performed the requisite feasibility study for the district informed the Board that the only really viable option available was to close, abandon, and ultimately demolish the two elementary schools and consolidate them into a K thru 12th education complex. I was saddened to hear that the elementary school that I attended was going to close. But I figured that there was some good reason. So I inquired.

Two of the main reasons for such a drastic solution was that the Pennsylvania Department of Education, through the BEC, would not reimburse any cost of the renovation of the elementary schools because:

1. The renovation costs would exceeded 60% of the “replacement” value of the building, and

2. Our building contained sections of framing that were made of wood.

At the the time, I could not understand why these rules existed, especially when many older abandoned schools are turned into housing.

The previous School Board felt that there was no easy solution to the problem, so they took the advise of the “experts”; which also happened to be the path of least resistance. Overnight, the Department of Education, through their arbitrary guidelines in the BEC, effectively tore the heart out of our community. Plans were drafted for the K thru 12th education complex and the wholesale destruction of our beloved neighborhood schools.

As a result of the School Board’s apparent surrender to the BEC, an unprecedented grass-roots movement arose to save our neighborhood schools, which I joined. Spontaneously, a bipartisan coalition called the Concerned Citizens of Brentwood Borough ran a slate of candidates dedicated to saving our neighborhood schools. The outcome was that all five Save Our Schools candidates, including myself, won with an unprecedented 70%+ of the popular vote, unseating the incumbent Board that was committed to closing, and ultimately demolishing our neighborhood schools. The community spoke, the new board had the mandate, and the responsibility to save our neighborhood schools. At the time the Department of Education was saying that they wanted to give more control to local school boards. We felt that we had a real possibility to save our schools in spite of the arbitrary guidelines of the BEC.

We took office in December 1995 and immediately set out to find a solution. We, as did the previous board, hired a school construction consultant to perform the requisite feasibility study that the PlanCon process requires. Unfortunately, our consultant informed us of the same BEC rule that would prevent us from renovating our elementary schools. However, we were adamant about saving our schools.

I am personally aware of many old buildings that are in use today. The Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Manchester and Birmingham are hot spots of very successful renovations of older buildings. Even this building can be sited as an old building with a very bright future. Why was it that two of my elementary schools were unsalvageable in the eyes of the Pennsylvania Department of Education? Why is it that the Department of Education feels that wood is so bad when it is good enough for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry and the National B.O.C.A. codes?

Finding a solution was our responsibility, and coupled with signals coming out of the Department of Education that they wanted local school boards to have more autonomy, we sent our consultant back to the drawing board, however, this time with conceptual renovation plans devised by the new board. Our plans addressed all requirements of space, Americans with Disabilities Act, Labor & Industry, technology enhancements, and energy conservation. The cost for our plan was nearly $7,000,000.00 less to implement than to replace the existing structures with new buildings, with the caveat that we replace all the wood structure with steel and concrete. (see visual)

Seeing that there was more hope that our buildings could be restored, we hired and architect whose business was not monopolized by school construction projects and more importantly, had extensive experience in rehabilitation and reuse of older, more challenging buildings. We felt that there was more chance that an architect not “hooked in” to the school construction business would be more apt to fight for the District and find acreative solutions to the challenges we faced.

We began the renovation process by submitting documents to the Department of Education called PlanCon A. In the submission, we clearly requested a variance from the BEC guidelines. (see visual) We indicated that our renovation plans met all of the requirements of both the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Labor and Industry and the 1996 BOCA Code as adopted by the Borough of Brentwood for continued use of existing structures. Our plans even included fire suppression systems that were not required by any building codes.

However, this was not acceptable by the Department of Education. On February 3rd, 1997, the Chief, Division of School Facilities at the Department of Education, told both our architect and our Superintendent of Schools that there was “no way” that we were getting a variance.

Because of our efforts to get the schools fully renovated and open by September in time for classes, we reluctantly had to accept the Department of Education’s emphatic turn down. On February 4th, the day, we sent a letter asking that our PlanCon A submittal eliminate the request for variance for ordinary construction because of our conversations with the Department of Education the day before. (see visual)

On March 11th, 1997, I received a letter from the Department of Education saying that PlanCon A was approved contingent on the removal of the ordinary construction. (see boards) There was no explanation from the Pennsylvania Department of Education as to why the BEC superseded all the appropriate codes, formulated by agencies charged with the authority and having the experience to do so.

There is some good new here. In spite of the negative impact of the BEC, our schools have been fully renovated, fully updated with the most advanced technologies in computers, networks, the internet, energy efficency (we didn’t have to resort to putting stucco on our buildings). Our buildings will proudly serve the District for many years to come.

I would like to ad that at a meeting in December of 1997 regarding this BEC rule, after our buildings were renovated and after we spent the money, the Department of Education said that their office “frequently grants” variances for partial ordinary construction. At that meeting they didn’t even know if we applied for a variance.

And finally, I would like to briefly summarize for the Joint Committees the impact of the arbitrary BEC guideline of the Pennsylvania Department of Education on the Borough of Brentwood: (see visual)

Almost caused an unneeded substantial investment in demolition and new construction.

Construction was delayed because district had to remove all wood “ordinary construction” and replace it with steel and concrete even though district met all Pennsylvania Labor and Industry and National B.O.C.A. building code requirements and in spite of requests for a variance from the Department.

“Punch list” items had to be completed while school was in session, causing inconvenience for students and teachers.

Caused the Brentwood School District to pay premium labor prices in order to get the schools open for classes. Even with crews working round-the-clock, opening was delayed until mid-September.

Total additional monetary impact to the taxpayer due to the arbitrary Pennsylvania Department of Education “Basic Education Circular” requirements:

Demolition $173,000.00

Cast in place concrete $116,400.00

Cold form metal framing $187,559.00

Insulation $ 16,000.00

Gypsum assemblies $ 76,700.00

Architects’ fees $ 42,724.00

Interest to be paid $362,085.00

Total Monetary Impact $974,468.00

Members of the committees, I again thank you for your time. I thank you for addressing this very important issue.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633