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Plan to build school divides district

By Daniel Casciato
Thursday, October 27, 2005

Woodland Hills School District officials are proceeding with plans to build a new East Junior High School despite opposition from some in the community.
There has been disagreement among school board members and residents in the district about whether to build a new $18 million junior high school in Turtle Creek or remodel the current one, which is in the former Turtle Creek High School.

“This is an illogical project,” said Bob Mock, a lifelong Turtle Creek resident. “Demolition of the current school is out of the question.”

Mock has organized a campaign, Save Turtle Creek High School, to preserve the building, which was constructed in 1917. The building is slated for demolition under the plan to build a new high school.

Earlier this month, the school board voted 5-3 to submit preliminary construction documents to the state Department of Education so the district will be partially reimbursed for building a new, 100,000-square-foot school.

School board members Robert Tomasic, Fred Kuhn and Marilyn Messina voted against the new school. Board President Cindy Lowery and four members — Linda Cole, Dr. William Driscoll, Colleen Filiak and Dr. Randy Lott — voted in favor. Board member Tanya Smith was absent.

The board also voted 5-3 to issue a $30.9 million bond issue to fund this project and make improvements to the Wolvarena football stadium and the Woodland Hills High School soccer field. Tomasic said the bond is expected to add about 1 mill to the current tax rate of 23.9 mills. The owner of a home assessed at $100,000 a year would pay an additional $100 a year in property taxes with the increase.

“Our taxpayers cannot afford this type of project,” Tomasic said. “It’s unbelievable that some of the board members want to go through with this.”

Filiak said that school officials might be able to cut other expenses to compensate for all or part of the increase in millage needed for the bond issue.

“We’ll have to take a close look at the budget,” she said.

Chris Baker, facilities coordinator for the school district, said school officials explored the option of remodeling the current building, which houses about 330 students.

“We were told by our architects that it would cost several million dollars more to renovate,” he said. “It would be more cost-effective to build a new school. People look at the building and see that it is safe, structurally. But what people do not see is the difficulty and the costs in maintaining it. This building is outdated.”

East Junior High was last renovated during the 1978-79 school year, when new windows were installed. However, since then, more energy-efficient windows have been created, Baker pointed out.

The valves on the air handlers in each room also are worn out, and the entire heating, ventilation and air conditioning system needs to be replaced, Baker said.

School officials also are opting for a new building because the current one is not accessible to people with disabilities and does not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, Baker said. The district would have to make the building ADA-compliant if it went ahead with any major remodeling.

“To make this facility ADA-compliant would require an extensive undertaking,” Baker said. “We’d have to add an elevator, accessible stalls would have to be installed in the bathrooms, and the classroom doors would all have to be widened.”

The current building originally was designed for high school students, Baker said.

“There is a mismatch of what is being taught at this level and what the rooms are set up for, such as the wood shops, science labs and consumer science home economics lab,” Baker said. “This was designed for a different curriculum, more than what is necessary for a junior high.”

Mock disagreed with the school officials’ reasons for going ahead with a new school..

“I have spoken to major Western Pennsylvania contractors and technology consultants about this building, and they said that renovation would be cheaper for this district,” he said.

“There is wide range community support against this project, and the school board knows that if this was put to a public vote, it would fail.”

Tomasic made a motion at the last school board meeting to put the plan before the voters, but the motion failed.

“Everyone says it’s a good idea, but they don’t want to put this up for a vote,” Tomasic said. “If it’s such a great idea, let’s see if the taxpayers will accept this project. If you’re so proud of this decision, go to the taxpayers.”

Baker said school officials hope to break ground next summer, begin construction of the new school next to the current building and then gradually move the students to the new building in the fall of 2007. Eventually, the existing school would be demolished.

Filiak said she supports the project based on the findings of the school board’s Building and Grounds Committee, which developed a long-range building plan after studying the district’s needs.

“We need to build a new junior high school,” she said.

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