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Pittsburgh school building worth saving, says Florida man spearheading effort

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Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, 11:59 p.m.
 

Regis Farrell is accumulating a lot of frequent flyer miles.

Farrell finds himself regularly making the 1,750-mile round trip between Pittsburgh and his Florida home for what some might consider a quixotic mission. He's spearheading efforts to breathe life into a century-old Mt. Washington parochial school that closed in June.

Farrell heads the Mt. Washington Community Academy, a nonprofit venture that wants to reopen the shuttered Bishop Leonard-St. Mary of the Mount Academy as a charter school. He estimates that since he got wind of the school's impending closure in February, he has spent about $10,000 on airfare and other costs associated with his increasingly frequent trips to the place he once called home.

Farrell grew up in Mt. Washington and attended the school in the 1960s. But that doesn't entirely explain why someone who has lived in the Sunshine State for nearly 30 years would become the driving force behind this effort.

“Why am I doing this? My wife keeps asking me the same thing,” said Farrell, 62, who runs a medical equipment company near Clearwater. “I suppose because Mt. Washington has always remained a part of me. I don't want to see the neighborhood go downhill.”

The elementary school had been a community landmark since 1910, outlasting its high school counterpart across the street on Grandview Avenue that was razed in 1982 for a townhouse development. Even after merging with Mt. Oliver's Bishop Leonard Academy in 2006, the elementary school fell victim to rising costs and declining enrollments that doomed countless parochial schools.

Farrell insists he's not running a one-man show, that others involved in the corporation are aiding the cause. But he is involved in lease negotiations with the diocese and preparing the charter application that must be approved by the city school board for the academy to open.

He has discussed plans for the academy with Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and City Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who is impressed by his dedication.

“He's been amazing,” she said. “Were it not for his passion and drive and commitment, I don't know that everyone else would be as committed to this as they are. Even though he moved out of the community, he understands the value of having a K-8 school in Mt. Washington.”

Farrell doesn't kid himself. He realizes the task ahead will be daunting, even if the application is approved.

“We had an architect inspect the building thoroughly and it's going to take roughly $500,000 (to modernize),” he said. “So we're talking about maybe doing a telethon on a public (access) station. We're certainly going to have to raise some money. We have a lot of work ahead.”

Sounds as though Farrell has plenty of frequent flyer miles in his future. The airlines won't be pleased.

But residents of his old neighborhood certainly should be.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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