When the North Allegheny School Board on Dec. 19 scheduled a public hearing on Superintendent Raymond Gualtieri's proposal to close Peebles Elementary School, board members Ralph J. Pagone and Christopher M. Jacobs voted "no."
Scheduling such a hearing is the first step a school board is legally required to take before it can consider closing a school.
At the school board meeting Nov. 28, Gualtieri told the board that closing Peebles would save $850,000 annually for the district, which is facing a $5.7 million deficit. He also argued that the district's enrollment continues to decline and that its elementary schools are not full and have room for Peebles students.
The community group Save NA Schools has been leading the opposition to closing Peebles, and Pagone has been listening.
The group repeatedly has asked the board to form a community task force which would provide additional ideas for addressing the district's projected budget deficits prior to a decision on closing an elementary school. It's not clear what, if any, power the task force would hold and who would be part of it. The board has not addressed that request.
“Why not take a step back and enlist the help of these taxpayers?" Pagone said. "They are intelligent people who have made compelling arguments. We are the stewards of their tax dollars, after all.”
After the board meeting Dec. 19, board member Beth Ludwig indicated she would vote against the formation of a community task force even though she was originally open to the idea.
"I would not want to subject any non-elected community members to the tone and intensity of the current debate," she said. "Also, at this point, I would not know what the board would have a task force do."
Pagone said he has a different opinion.
“ Save NA Schools is made up of well-educated people, and they are not getting their voice fairly heard,” he said.
He said he also questions the wisdom of ignoring the recommendation of one consultant who recommended closing Bradford Woods Elementary because of the need for extensive repairs. Instead, the board favors the findings of a second study by Jon Thomas of the Thomas & Williamson construction program management firm, which suggests the opposite.
Thomas & Williamson is the same firm which, along with the school district, was the target of a lawsuit by James Construction Co. over renovations at Hosack Elementary in the late 1990s. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Timothy Patrick O'Reilly ruled against the district and awarded damages of $524,087.
“We had 12 experts who told us what some board members didn’t want to hear," Pagone said. "So what did we do? We tossed out that study and got a second opinion from a firm which we had questionable dealings with in the past as a result of a prior construction project.”
Pagone said he agrees with members of the Save NA Schools group that enrollment in the district will rise.
“Allegheny County and Western Pennsylvania are experiencing an increase in population for the first time in decades, and people will want buy either new or existing homes in the North Allegheny School District," he said.
And if a majority of the board ultimately decides to close one of the district's seven elementary schools, Pagone said he believes the wrong school has been targeted.
“If you want to close a building, why not close Bradford Woods Elementary, which the initial report tells us needs $14 million in renovations?" he said. "We don’t have that kind of money, and Peebles doesn’t need any renovations.”
To read more on the administration's arguments for closing Peebles Elementary, click here.
To read the counter-arguments from Save NA schools, click here.
Check out some of today's other top stories here.