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School's Out

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Shortly before school-board members voted on June 25 to close Schenley High School -- the building -- some board members pledged to seek funding to reopen the historic landmark in the future, while one board member made a last-ditch effort to save something he sees as more important: Schenley -- the school.

Before shutting down Schenley -- due to asbestos problems the district estimates could cost roughly $76 million -- board members passed a resolution asking that the district "pursue several long-term options for use, investment and/or renovation" of the historic school. But board member Randall Taylor says the district will never be able to recreate what made the school great: the Spartans.

"You can bring it back and call it Schenley High School, but it won't be the same," he says. "There isn't anything magical about the building. It's the kids and teachers that make it magical."

Much to his dismay, the board voted down Taylor's resolution to move Schenley's entire population to Peabody High School in East Liberty at the start of next school year. That way, if the school ever reopened, Schenley's students could simply be picked up and shifted right back to where they came from.

Instead, current Schenley students will move to the former Reizenstein facility in East Liberty, until the high school is eventually phased out by 2011. By then, Schenley's programs -- International Baccalaureate, Robotics and mainstream tracks -- will all have moved to various buildings throughout the district.

"Schenley High School will not exist anymore," said Taylor, a Peabody alumnus, at the June 25 legislative meeting. "You're killing the school."

Although Taylor says a wholesale move from Schenley to Peabody "is a better proposal" than what district Superintendent Mark Roosevelt put on the table, some board members -- seven of whom voted against his measure -- and administrators disagreed.

Some were upset with how hastily Taylor's resolution was introduced. "You're not giving [the public] a chance to absorb this," said board member Theresa Colaizzi. "You're just saying, 'Let's vote.' You cannot move this from Reizenstein to Peabody at the last minute."

And even if they could, Roosevelt says adding Schenley's roughly 1,100 students to Peabody's 500 simply won't work. He says Peabody's maximum capacity is just 1,113 students.

"I can't be more blunt," Roosevelt announced at the meeting. "It [does] not fit."

Taylor, on the other hand, says the building can hold up to 1,800 kids -- an estimate he says was confirmed by a senior district staff member familiar with the facility.

But what killed Taylor's proposal more than anything else were the actions of the board itself. In February, the board had already voted to move Schenley's students to Reizenstein in the fall. And since then, the district has signed contracts and hired personnel for the new buildings.

"This is an expensive option," said district solicitor Ira Weiss. "To terminate those contracts exposes the district to many forms of damages. ... The district will expose itself to significant ramifications."

Taylor says he would swallow those ramifications if it meant that the district would simply use the space it has, rather than waste money renovating facilities. In another resolution he introduced on June 25, Taylor asked that the district pledge to do just that.

"It's more of a principle," Taylor announced. "This is such a reasonable proposal. That's all it's saying: 'Utilize existing space before you build something new.'"

It was voted down 6-3. Board members Mark Brentley Sr. and Thomas Sumpter were the only two to join Taylor in voting in favor of the resolution.

"Why do you think it was voted down?" Taylor later asked City Paper. "To vote for that would have been a complete contradiction of" the board's votes to move Schenley to Reizenstein, as well as to replace the current Frick Middle School in Oakland with the Science and Technology 6-12 Academy for the 2009-10 school year.

Taylor called the Science and Technology move "absolutely irresponsible." Ever since the district started searching for potential locations for the new program, Taylor has advocated for its placement in Westinghouse High School, which has undergone more than $25 million in renovations in the past decade. The Homewood school can hold 1,000 students, according to district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh, but there are less than 400 students currently using the building.

The district projects that renovating Frick will cost roughly $14 million. Taylor says a move to Westinghouse would cost just a fraction of that.

But Derrick Lopez, the district's chief of high school reform, says moving the program to Westinghouse or a number of other under-capacity buildings is "not educationally sound." Because of its Oakland location near the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, he says Frick can draw on lots of resources and attract students from throughout the city.

"Those are very compelling reasons" why a move to Frick is ideal, says Lopez.

But, he adds, that doesn't mean the district didn't consider merging new programs into buildings with excess space.

"We thought about putting schools within schools," Lopez says. "But we are not simply just going to look at space and put children there. ... We're going to look at what programming would be best utilized within those facilities."

"A school building is a school building," Taylor counters. "If it wouldn't work, we can make it work."

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