FAQ: The Recommendation to Close Peebles Elementary School
The NA Board of School Directors is holding a Legislative Hearing on the question of closing Peebles Elementary School on Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 7pm in the Carson Middle School Auditorium.
Eight presentations, several other communications, and a community blog are all available on this website to help those who are interested in understanding the issues related to this question. The District has made every effort to be transparent and complete in sharing the details of this study and all research with the public.
There are also rumors, misinterpretations, and high levels of emotion surrounding this issue circulating in the community. This is an important and difficult decision for the School Board to consider. It requires the perspective and input of the whole District. It is not a one school/one neighborhood issue.
The following collection of Frequently Asked Questions is one more resource to help provide answers to questions and concerns that may still exist in the community. To submit a question to be included in this collection, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: We understand a letter was submitted by Architectural Innovations to the North Allegheny School District in January 2013 in which they offered the School District free “services to complete the Feasibility Study and Demographic Analysis, which would encompass the entire School District…substantiate all estimated costs…could include another demographic analysis….” What is the North Allegheny School District’s intention relative to this offer of free services?
A: The North Allegheny School District administration will not be engaging in any further work contracts for services related to the current Demographics and Feasibility Study at this time. This Study was originally initiated for three reasons: (1) to analyze the need for renovations and upgrades at Bradford Woods Elementary (BWE), Marshall Elementary (MES) and Marshall Middle (MMS) Schools; (2) to review building capacities; and (3) to provide a demographic study with a ten-year projection of student enrollment. Both the Architectural Innovations report presented in August 2011 (Phase I) and the Thomas & Williamson report (Phase II) presented in August 2012 provided detailed information relative to all three of these criteria. District administration also conducted its own detailed demographic study as a part of the research phase of this project.
While the January letter received from Architectural Innovations inferred otherwise, District administrators recently verified with the firm that their original study did, in fact, provide a capacity analysis of all twelve schools – not just BWE, MES, and MMS. The District sees no need for the additional study, since all the relevant work offered in the January 2013 proposal was completed by this firm and reported on in August 2011.
All the components of the Demographic and Feasibility Study – the Architectural Innovations report, the Thomas & Williamson report, the NASD research and data collection, and community input – are currently being used as a reference by the School Board as they decide whether or not to close Peebles Elementary School (PES). Information relative to secondary schools is not integral to that current concern. The existing information is adequate to support planning that may occur for re-districting at both the elementary and middle school levels.
With regard to the similarities and differences between the Architectural Innovations report (Phase I) and the Thomas & Williamson report (Phase II), both consultants agreed that BWE, MES, and MMS require renovations and upgrades. However, the two reports offer plans that recommend different timelines and different budgetary objectives. Those timelines and budgetary objectives influenced the recommendations of each consultant.
Based upon their findings, the Architectural Innovations report presented more than a dozen recommendations, in response to their identification of over-capacity at the elementary level. The top three recommendations included (1) doing nothing but extensive renovations at BWE, MES and MMS; or (2) closing BWE and doing renovations/upgrades; or (3) closing BWE and PES and doing renovations/upgrades.
Thomas & Williamson presented three options for consideration by the District, based upon their identification of over-capacity at the elementary level. Their recommended option was that of closing PES.
The demographic studies from both reports come to the same conclusions relative to elementary student enrollment over the next ten years. Stable to slightly declining enrollment was projected by both. This information also coincides with the yearly study done by the District administration and the annual work that occurs in support of District enrollment and staffing projections.
As such, Architectural Innovations has been informed that the District is satisfied at this point in time with the sum total of the research and data that has been gathered in support of this project. The scope of their report was complete as submitted. While they offered to retain another demographer at no charge, the conclusions of the original demographer who conducted the study for Architectural Innovations have been verified over the course of the last year and half by two other sources.
It is worth noting that, after Architectural Innovations presented their August 2011 report, the Board requested the Phase II study. The administration issued an RFP detailing the additional work required. Architectural Innovations responded to the Phase II RFP. The quote they submitted was two times higher than the cost of their Phase I study. The District could not justify paying that amount of money for the scope of work in the Phase II study. In negotiations, the District reduced the scope of the RFP and asked Architectural Innovations for another bid. Their quote was still more than 30% higher than the cost of the Phase I work. Ultimately, Thomas & Williamson was selected to do the full scope of work originally requested in the Phase II study.
The work on the Demographic and Feasibility Study has continued for 18 months following the delivery of the Architectural Innovations Phase I report. This project has had on-going exposure in the public forum. The North Allegheny School District has not heard from Architectural Innovations since their bid on the Phase II RFP until the receipt of the letter dated January 2013. After thoughtful consideration, their offer to do additional work has been respectfully declined.
Q: CONSIDER THESE OPTIONS TO SAVE MONEY: Have other options been considered to assist with budgetary concerns, instead of closing an elementary school?
What about these suggestions:
1. Change the school hours to save money. North Hills is expecting to save $400,000.
2. Offer parents the option to drive children to school or pay for busing.
3. Increase ‘pay-for-play’ so that it includes band, orchestra, and other programs, in addition to athletics.
4. Do not build batting cages or the large scoreboard included in the Capital Projects proposal.
A: A number of people have asked this question. Yes, the District has already taken many significant actions over the past several years to address budgetary concerns. (Please refer to the question ”OTHER CHOICES TO SAVE MONEY.”) Relative to the four specific suggestions listed above, the community should have this information:
1. NASD implemented a staggered school start schedule over 15 years ago along the model described and has been reaping the savings from that management decision ever since.
2. Asking parents to pay for transportation may be an option to consider down the road for NA. This would be a measure that would affect all students K-12 and a significant operational shift. Families would incur additional expense as a result and the District would still have excess capacity at the elementary level which would need to be funded by taxpayer dollars. By closing Peebles, families will not incur additional expense, the academic program will not be compromised, and more taxpayer dollars will be spent to preserve and enhance academic programs.
3. At the present, our participation fee does apply to all extra- and co-curricular activities, not just athletics.
4. Although the batting cage and the scoreboard were proposed in the Capital Funding Plan, they are not currently approved for funding. All proposed projects in that report are currently under review.
Q: Attendance Boundaries - In what month did the Board of School Directors vote on and pass the changes in the attendance boundaries during the 2006-2007 redistricting process.
A: The Board passed the changes to the attendance boundaries at the March 22, 2006 Board meeting.
Q: WHY DID THE BOARD VOTE ‘YES’ ON A HEARING? With so many questions still swirling in the community, how did the Board feel comfortable voting YES to a hearing on the closure of Peebles? It seems to some people that there is still a lot to consider on this issue. Others have only just become involved in the discussion and don’t have the full overview of the situation. It is difficult for them to understand the rationale of the Board and feel confident that the Board is listening to everyone.
A: This question is a compilation of input received via email, phone calls and letters from a number of community members. Mrs. Grosheider, Board President, recently wrote this response to one resident. She has given her permission for it to be reprinted here:
Q: WHY WAS THE CLOSURE OF PEEBLES RECOMMENDED? What is the motivation behind this recommendation? The District won’t save enough money by closing Peebles to balance the budget. This is a high-performing school that was renovated not too long ago. This school has a lot of life in it and a lot of support from the surrounding community.
A: Closing Peebles Elementary School would be a decision to become more operationally efficient. The recommendation is based upon the fact that NASD has excess capacity in 2012-2013 at the elementary level and has had excess capacity for more than several years.
The term “excess capacity” refers to the fact that the District has room for more students than are currently enrolled. In 2012-2013, NASD could close a small elementary school and still have 9 “spare” classrooms to work with for flexibility in the remaining six schools. Class size would not be affected.
Several demographic studies and trend analyses predict that future elementary student enrollment will be stable, at best, and most likely slightly declining over the next 10 years. If we have excess capacity now, we will most likely have more excess capacity in the future. More specifically, the decline in student enrollment is predicted to occur in the southern area of the District. Student enrollment is predicted to increase in other areas.
We have seven elementary schools, but only five small schools. Of the five, only Peebles and Hosack are located in the area of the District that has been identified as having the least / declining student enrollment growth potential. The decision to close Peebles over Hosack was based upon the fact that Peebles has no “spare classrooms” when the facility is analyzed under the guidelines of the redistricting model which allows for 4 sections of grades K-2 and three sections of grades 3-5.
Based upon the analysis of operational savings, closing Peebles Elementary School will save NASD at least $1.25M each year for the next seven years. So, will closing Peebles balance the budget? No, it will not. However, will closing Peebles make significant monies available now and over time to preserve educational programs? Yes, it absolutely will.
Q: RENTING PEEBLES - Is it true that the District has a deal in place to rent/lease Peebles? Was that the reason why the recommendation to close a school was changed from Bradford Woods to Peebles?
A: At this point in time, the District does not have a tenant for the Peebles building. We certainly hope there will be potential tenants. The location, condition, and configuration of the building would all lend themselves to future rental options, if the School Board decides in favor of closing Peebles. There has been some advance work done by District personnel in terms of the investigation of market value and a review of comparator spaces.
However, recommending the closure of Peebles instead of the closure of Bradford Woods was not based on future rental/lease potential. As has been explained a number of times in our presentations, Bradford Woods was the first recommendation in the first report primarily because of the very high estimates related to the renovations needed at that building. Peebles was also recommended as an option in the first report. In the second report, the renovation estimates for Bradford Woods were reviewed and revised. They became a less important factor in this consideration.
There was also a significantly expanded demographic component in the second report that established the northern area of the District – where Bradford Woods is located – as a school enrollment growth area. On the other hand, the southern area of McCandless – where Peebles is located – is not expected to produce increased school enrollment population, but rather continue to decline slightly but steadily in that demographic. This was the driving factor in the decision to recommend Peebles for closure instead of Bradford Woods. To illustrate this decline, consider that in 2006-2007, when the District last re-districted, Hosack had 407 students and Peebles had 388. In 2012-2013, Hosack has 335, Peebles has 374. When it came time to choose between Hosack and Peebles for closure, the main consideration was that Peebles is the smaller building and has no extra full-size classrooms.
A: Without getting into lengthy discussion about the number or exact location of ‘extra classrooms,’ it is a clear fact that “spare” classrooms exist. They aren’t labeled ”spares” when you visit a school and some of them may be currently empty, but some of them may not be. Enrollment in schools varies from year to year. Facilities are designed to be flexible to provide good options suited to the needs of each school year.
The determination of what rooms will be “spares” from year to year is based upon the enrollment by grade level in each building. It is the responsibility of each principal to utilize his/her building efficiently, once enrollment totals are available for the year.
In many cases, classrooms identified as “spare” this year have something going on in them. Programs, such as reading support, that are designed for smaller spaces, have gradually moved into these full-size rooms just because they weren’t being used for other purposes. That is the flexible nature of a school building. Rooms don’t sit empty.
Using the PDE standards for the dimensions of a full-size classroom, the District has audited and verified that there are 30+ ‘spare’ rooms in elementary schools this year. Student enrollment is expected to remain stable at best, but probably decline over the next ten years.
When making the decision about which school to recommend for closure, the District used 2012-2013 enrollment figures to feed into a sample design scenario for school closure. That scenario allows for four sections of grades K-2 and three sections of grades 3-5 in every small elementary building.
As a result of the analysis, Peebles is the only school that would not have a spare classroom when rolled into the model closure scenarios. This is a significant fact. All of the other elementary schools have one or more spare classrooms in this model, leaving the District with more flexibility for operational efficiencies. Therefore, Peebles became a more likely candidate for closure.
Q: OTHER CHOICES TO SAVE MONEY? If closing Peebles is supposed to help the District become more operationally efficient – it seems like there are other things that could be considered before the closing of a school. What has the District already done?
A: The District has had a budget deficit over the past several years of $8M+. To balance those budgets, these cost saving and/or revenue producing actions have been taken. This is NOT an exhaustive list.
Q: LAW SUIT - Concerns have been raised about a law suit from 1999 that involved the North Allegheny School District and Jon Thomas of Thomas & Williamson, who did the Phase 2 Report of the Demographic and Feasibility Study. Words like “suspect” and “bad faith” have been used. What is the story?
A: This is the background on the 1999 law suit: Originally, the District contracted with a company to provide Construction Management services for the North Allegheny School District elementary school renovations in the 1997-1998 timeframe. Jon Thomas was an employee of that company at the time and worked with the District during the design phase for this work. During the course of the project, Mr. Thomas left the Construction Management company that was working with the District and started his own firm. Several months after the construction projects were underway, it became evident that the elementary school renovations were falling behind schedule and other issues were arising. As a result of these problems the District dissolved their agreement with the original Construction Management company.
The District felt it was important to complete the renovation projects on time so students could utilize the elementary buildings when school opened in the fall. Due to their confidence in Mr. Thomas’ skills and his prior knowledge of the projects, the Board asked Mr. Thomas to take over the Construction Management responsibilities. After the renovation projects were completed, the District became involved in a law suit brought by James Construction Company. James Construction was just one of more than 50 contractors involved in the renovation project. No other contractor took issue with Mr. Thomas or the District regarding this project. At the time when the law suit was filed, the original Construction Management Company was in bankruptcy protection.
James Construction alleged that the District and the Construction Manager accelerated the pace of the project in order to ensure that Hosack Elementary School – one of the five schools included in the renovation project – would open on time to begin the school year. The judge concluded that the North Allegheny School District and Mr. Thomas, as the District’s agent, had pushed for acceleration. Judge O’Reilly found in favor of James Construction and awarded them compensation for their claims.
While the District does not agree with the outcome of the law suit, Mr. Thomas’ services were valued on these projects and all five schools were ultimately completed on time and on budget. The District had then and continues to have a great deal of respect for Mr. Thomas. He has worked with many area school districts and has an excellent reputation as an expert in the field of school renovation and construction projects.
Relative to the cost of the work Mr. Thomas did for North Allegheny on the Phase 2 Report of the Demographic & Feasibility Study, Mr. Thomas donated his services free of charge to complete this work. The District paid only for the cost of the services of the demographer.