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Woodland Hills school board OKs bond option; nixes $73K PR firm proposal

| Thursday, July 20, 2017, 1:09 a.m.
The Woodland Hills School District administrative building.
The Woodland Hills School District administrative building.

As a Netflix film crew staged a theatrical FBI headquarters at district facilities this week, the Woodland Hills Board of Education convened Wednesday to address the school district's ongoing real-life drama.

The board accepted the resignation of its president, Tara Reis, without much discussion, then continued onto two more controversial agenda items: a resolution authorizing tens of millions of dollars in debt for facility repairs and renovations; and a proposal to spend $73,000 on a public relations firm.

Here's a rundown for those who couldn't make it to the standing-room only public meeting at the district's administrative office in North Braddock:

Bond debt authorized

After nearly tabling the item until August — a move that Superintendent Alan Johnson warned would jeopardize design and planning work already underway — the board green-lighted a resolution authorizing up to $85 million in bond debt to finance renovations to several district buildings.

The resolution nearly failed to advance.

The district had been discussing facility upgrades for several months, but this week the estimated grand total became clear: up to $93 million — an amount that board member Jeff Hildebrand called a “terrifying figure,” even though he agreed with Johnson that upgrades are necessary.

Board Vice President Mike Belmonte suggested delaying the vote another month to give the district time to publish the likes of building needs assessments online for the public to review.

Johnson noted that since the district's existing debt is due to be paid off in 2022-23, the additional bond debt would only raise annual debt service by about $400,000, or from $5.7 million to $6.1 million. He further emphasized that the vote at hand merely authorized a maximum borrowing amount. Board members will have to take further action in the fall or early next year to approve specific projects and bond issuances.

“Setting a ceiling is like having a closet in your house; you're going to fill that space,” said board member Jamie Glasser, who proposed lowering the maximum.

The $93 million figure was based on architect recommendations that considered the cost of renovations to the high school ($52 million to $60 million), intermediate school ($28 million to $30 million) and Rankin Promise buildings ($6 million to $9 million).

Johnson told the board the proposed spending was not “lavish” but rather an attempt at addressing long overdue improvements and repairs. The intermediate school is a “borderline unsafe building,” according to Johnson, and, with its massive electrical and plumbing issues, “the high school isn't terribly far behind.”

“This is not a Taj Mahal,” continued Johnson. “It's maintaining the facilities we have and keeping them safe for children, which is our duty.”

Initially, the board failed to secure the required super-majority to pass the bond resolution.

Then, toward the end of Wednesday's meeting, the $85 million version was reconsidered and approved. Board member Jeff Hanchett changed his no-vote to a yes while noting he didn't want the district to “go cheap on this” and would have preferred to authorize the full $93 million.

“Sure, yes, I'll approve it,” Hanchett said as he switched his vote. “We've got to do something.”

Stay tuned to later this week for an in-depth look at how officials plan to use the newly approved financing.

PR pitch rejected

Separately, the board rejected a proposal to extend up to a year a contract with Pittsburgh-based public relations firm MASSolutions .

MASSolutions promised to deliver a “No BS Marketing Strategy” to the tune of $73,781 for ongoing services for 12 months, according to the firm's proposal, which included items such as publishing a district newsletter, executing a social media strategy and making better use of search engine optimization related to district information and announcements.

Johnson said the firm would help Woodland Hills better tell its story and carry out professional services he and his administration do not have time to do, since they no longer employ a full-time public relations employee.

The proposed contract follows months of controversy for the embattled district, including public backlash over incidents of violence between staff and students and a civil rights probe by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

Johnson stressed that the proposed agreement was not a bill.

“We're not required to bid it as long as we think the cost is reasonable,” Johnson said of the services.

Two board members, Ava Johnson and Andre Moore, voted against it. Pennsylvania school code requires contracts in excess of $100 to pass with at least five affirmative votes, according to Solicitor Frederick Wolfe.

The district started working with MASSolutions in early May. The board retroactively approved an agreement to work with the firm later that month, at a cost of $350 per hour, with a limit of $10,000, through the end of the 2016-17 school year.

Natasha Lindstrom and Jamie Martines are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Lindstrom at 412-380-8514, or on Twitter @NewsNatasha. Reach Martines at 724-850-2867, or on Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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