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Study of North Allegheny's Peebles Elementary scrutinized

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 9:41 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Several parents hold up graphs showing an increase in enrollment in the North Allegheny School District during a public hearing about the possibility of closing Peebles Elementary School at Carson Middles School on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013.
Naseem Wahlah expresses her concern about the possible closing of Peebles Elementary School to the North Allegheny School Board during a public hearing at Carson Middle School Wednesday, January 30, 2013. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

North Allegheny School District residents opposed to closing Peebles Elementary School are questioning why an engineer conducted a recent study of the school for free.

Alan Lilienthal, a Peebles parent, wondered whether it is appropriate for the district to have accepted a free study.

“I also wonder why anyone would work for free, unless there was something to gain down the road,” said Lilienthal, of McCandless.

But Jon Thomas, of Thomas & Williamson Program Management of Ross, said the district asked him to do a demographic and feasibility study.

“They came to me and said, ‘Can you help out?' I said, ‘I'd be honored to help out,' ” said Thomas.

Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, said such practices are not uncommon.

“Sometimes, there are consultants who donate their time. On its face, I do not see that as a problem. They are thinking of closing a school, not building one,” Himes said.

Superintendent Raymond Gualtieri supports Thomas' recommendation to close Peebles, which the school board is considering.

He said closing Peebles would save the district $850,000. He has warned that the district faces a $10 million deficit for the 2013-14 school year.

An earlier study by Architectural Innovation of Ross recommended closing Bradford Woods Elementary School, which it said needs $14 million in repairs.

Yet Thomas said that amount reflects doing a complete overhaul of the school, which he said is not necessary.

“I don't think they need to tear the whole school apart,” he said.

Thomas hired a demographer who said Marshall and Franklin Park are the areas of the district with potential for growth — not McCandless, which is home to Peebles.

Thomas has managed school projects before, including for North Allegheny.

James Construction Co. sued Thomas & Williamson and the school district over renovation work at North Allegheny in the late 1990s. James won damages of $524,087 from the district in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

Lilienthal was among about 100 speakers who talked at a Jan. 30 public hearing on closing Peebles. The meeting ended at 2:21 a.m., and everyone who spoke opposed closing Peebles.

Since the meeting, some parents have started to lobby state Rep. Mike Turzai, a Bradford Woods Republican and parent of a student at Bradford Woods Elementary School, to speak in favor of keeping Peebles open.

“We believe that Rep. Turzai has put pressure on some of the board members to keep Bradford Woods open,” said Doug Karlovits, another Peebles parent.

Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for Turzai, said the notion is false.

“Rep. Turzai did not do anything like what this group is claiming. Closing a school is a totally local decision,” Miskin said.

The school board could vote as early as April 30 on whether to close the school.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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