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Norwin scales back STEM ambitions, works on Plan B

Tony LaRussa
| Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Norwin is scrapping plans to build a $10.6 million STEM center building on its North Huntingdon campus in favor of a “scaled-down” project that focuses on using existing space or expanding the high school, district officials said this week.

The decision to reduce the scope of the proposed science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — center came after school officials learned that a significant amount of the anticipated funding from state grants and local foundations will not be available, Superintendent William Kerr wrote in a memorandum to the school board, which met on Monday.

The project relied on a $2.5 million grant from the state's Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program. But that money is not available because the proposed STEM center “is not considered shovel ready,” the superintendent said.

The project also anticipated a $2.5 million “partnership” grant from Penn State University and an unidentified local foundation that “did not materialize,” said Kerr, adding that “the major foundation will not fund public education projects or any organization that has not been funded in the past.”

Reducing the scope of the project will shave about $4.1 million off the estimated cost and bring it closer to the original amount the district planned to spend.

District officials initially proposed raising $7 million from grants and donations to build a 22,000-square-foot building. But after a steering committee was convened late last year to gather input on the project, it grew into a 36,000-square-foot building with the $10.6 million price tag.

“The truth is, we've had to take a pause and look at this from an exploratory standpoint,” Kerr said. “What we'd like to do is move away from a stand-alone building and do something at the high school by repurposing or reconfiguring existing space and at the same time look at some additions (to the building), which I think is a pretty good option.”

Converting under-utilized space at the high school and expanding the building would “stay well-within a $6.5 million budget,” Kerr said.

The district's architect for the project, Hayes Large, is scheduled to present details at Monday's school board meeting on how the STEM center can be integrated into the high school.

Board member Darlene Ciocca said she visited two schools — one in Indiana and the other in Texas — while traveling this summer that had integrated their version of a STEM center into existing school buildings.

“I was interested and very pleased to see this in other areas of the country,” she said. “It was exciting to see what they did because it was kind of what we're going for here.”

Despite the decision to pass on constructing a new building, the superintendent said the district's vision of making specialized education and training in STEM fields an integral part of the eduction Norwin students receive “still has much promise.”

Feedback from nearly three dozen community and business leaders who were interviewed about the proposed project indicated a “strong community-wide support for STEM education” and acknowledgement of Norwin as a “leader in STEM education,” the superintendent wrote in his memo to the board.

B ut despite the growing interest in the value of STEM education, Norwin's consultant for the project, Bob Carter Companies, found reluctance on the part of some foundations to provide financial support.

“Major foundations ... are hesitant to fund K-12 education capital projects for tax-supported public school districts,” Kerr wrote.

The consultant also determined that attracting $3.5 million in donations for the project is “a more realistic fundraising goal.”

The superintendent said that while some of the expected funding for the project did not pan out, the state has earmarked $500,000 in the 2014-15 budget to help Norwin bolster its STEM programs.

Kerr said the appropriation was included in the budget at the behest of state Sen. Kim Ward (R-Hempfield) who “was very influential in working with the governor's office and the Dept. of Education to obtain the funding, which does not require matching funds and has “no strings attached.”

Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2360, or at

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