School board votes to close Schenley building
The Pittsburgh school board last night voted 5-4 to close the Pittsburgh Schenley High School building, rejecting a proposed referendum on the issue and saddening school supporters who spent months fighting to save the historic structure.
Voting to close Schenley were board members Heather Arnet, Theresa Colaizzi, Jean Fink, Floyd McCrea and President Bill Isler. Voting no were Mark Brentley Sr., Sherry Hazuda, Thomas Sumpter and Randall Taylor. The vote followed another in a string of emotional debates about whether the building could be spared.
“The closing and the destruction of Schenley High School — the public’s not going to forget this,” said Mr. Taylor.
The 92-year-old landmark that graduated artist Andy Warhol, jazz great George Benson and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Clifford Shull, among other notable names in sundry fields, will close June 30. Staff members already had packed equipment and supplies for use at other school buildings.
The board left open the possibility of reopening Schenley one day by forming a committee to investigate future uses for the building and how to pay for renovations.
“It remains to be seen whether Schenley will rise again,” Mr. Sumpter said.
The board’s action did not satisfy Schenley supporters. “There was no reason to vote to close Schenley,” said Highland Park resident Jill Weiss.
In October, Superintendent Mark Roosevelt proposed closing Schenley at the end of the school year, saying the district couldn’t afford to address asbestos and other maintenance problems.
At the time, Mr. Roosevelt said renovations would cost about $64 million.
He increased the estimate to $76.2 million May 19, after consulting with a fourth architect, and in recent days had put the cost at more than $80 million.
Mr. Roosevelt said the district must commit its money to academic improvement, not bricks and mortar, and he maintained the district is stretched to the financial limit with increasing costs, flat revenues and previous debt.
The proposal to close Schenley and replace it with new schools drew an outcry from school supporters, who scrutinized architects’ reports and concluded the building’s needs weren’t as serious, or the potential cost as high, as Mr. Roosevelt had indicated.
Supporters argued that the building could be renovated for about $40 million, and they bitterly opposed Mr. Roosevelt’s claim that students couldn’t remain in the building during a renovation project.
Civil-rights and neighborhood groups united to save Schenley. Supporters packed public hearings, lobbied board members and tried to get City Council to intervene in the dispute.
The building has been the touchstone for a larger debate about the direction in which Mr. Roosevelt is leading the district.
Parents asked why Mr. Roosevelt would dismantle a school with a happy, diverse, high-performing student body, suggesting that Schenley instead should be a model for reform district-wide.
Supporters have skewered the new schools Mr. Roosevelt has proposed in place of Schenley, such as questioning the efficacy of the middle-high school concept he wants to make a district staple and claiming a university-partnership school in the Hill District will promote segregation.
Believing a majority of voters wouldn’t want to go into debt to save one building, Mrs. Colaizzi last week proposed a referendum on the issue. But the board ultimately chose to make the decision itself.
The fallout of the Schenley debate remains unclear.
At a time when Mr. Roosevelt is trying to sustain community support for a broad range of academic and financial initiatives, the Schenley fight alienated numerous parents, including some who have threatened to pull their children from a district already struggling from plummeting enrollment.
The debate also conflicted a school board that has strived to remain focused on Mr. Roosevelt’s improvement efforts .
Schenley’s remaining 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders will attend classes at the Reizenstein building in Shadyside and remain together — as Schenley students — until their classes graduate.
Future ninth-graders will go to the university-partnership school, a new International Baccalaureate school or Pittsburgh Peabody High School. Assignment will be based on students’ neighborhood or magnet preference.