West Jefferson Hills unveils high school building options
It could be up to the taxpayers to decide if a project to renovate or construct a new high school in West Jefferson Hills moves forward in a timely fashion.
Community members for the first time on Monday night reviewed options for modernizing Thomas Jefferson High School. The possibilities are: an overhaul of the more than 50 year old high school or construction of a new facility. That could occur on either the site of the current high school or on a recently purchased property along Old Clairton Road.
Yet, each option came with a hefty price tag – ranging from $60 to $72 million. And funding a high school project, in any form, likely will require a tax increase, board members said. “Whether we're talking renovation or we're talking building new, we're still over $60 million,” board member Darlene Schreiber said. “It doesn't matter which way we go when it comes to the finances. It's still a significant amount of money.”
To finance the project, the board could seek voters' permission, through a referendum, to raise taxes above a Pennsylvania Department of Education-issued index. That, though, would not occur until, at the earliest, spring 2014, board Vice President Shauna D'Alessandro said.
The state issued index is 2.2 percent for West Jefferson Hills for the 2013-14 school year and board members last month already agreed not to raise taxes above that rate.
“I think we have a chance in this district, because we're not like the other districts. We're Happy Valley here,” D'Alessandro said. “It's amazing. People come here and they don't leave. We do have a lot of buy into this school district, so I think that we do have a chance at passing a referendum, but it's not something that the board does. A referendum is a community effort.”
The district has not raised taxes since the 2008-09 school year. The tax rate for the 2012-13 school year is 21.08 mills.
Another option would be to raise taxes to the index each year, “systematically,” for several years, D'Alessandro said.
“To raise taxes every year by the index so as not to go to referendum, it may take us seven years,” D'Alessandro said. “If we have to depend on the future to go up that percentage of a mill, we could jeopardize ourselves financially. That's what I don't want to see happen here.”
D'Alessandro recommended bringing in an expert, Mike Paston, of the Upper Dublin School District, to talk with residents about how a referendum is conducted. Other board members agreed to the idea.
Passing a referendum is a “political campaign” and takes a community buy-in, D'Alessandro said.
“It is going to involve work,” D'Alessandro said, noting that community members will be tasked with getting their neighbors to understand that the high school project will affect all property owners. “It is important that at the end of the day, the community understands and appreciates the value that a good school system brings to them.”
Residents at Monday's meeting showed support for the idea, but said they would like to have a dollar figure for how much taxes could go up.
“I want to be able to give them a figure,” said parent Dan Deabner, noting he already is working to convince others to support the project.
Options for high school upgrades vary greatly.
No matter which option is selected, the high school stadium and field house likely will remain on the existing site in the 300 block of Old Clairton Road, district architect Ryan Pierce said. Reconstructing the facility, built nearly 10 years ago, would cost between $7 and $10 million.
A renovation of Thomas Jefferson High School would cost about $60 million. That project would be completed in August 2019.
The project would include the demolition and reconstruction of the auditorium and main gymnasium and the addition of a food court. A natatorium would be added, classrooms upgraded, the library modernized, interior finishes renovated, heating systems replaced and fire suppression systems installed.
“The proposed renovation is upgrading this building to provide the same or similar programs to what a new facility could provide,” Pierce said.
While this project would have a lower construction cost than other options presented, it does have its downfalls, Pierce said.
Temporary trailers would be needed for classes during construction, Pierce said. Additional retaining walls also would be needed on the site.
Another option is to build a new high school on the current Thomas Jefferson site, costing about $72.4 million. The project would be completed in August 2018.
The new high school would be built on property bordering Wakefield Drive.
The project would have “high site costs” and the building layout would need to be structured around the topography of the site, Pierce said. Large retaining walls also would need to be built.
The third option is to construct a school on the newly acquired, 151 acre property along Old Clairton Road. That project would cost $69.5 million. Construction would be completed in December 2017.
For both new buildings, the current high school would be used for education during construction then demolished and used for parking, Pierce said.
The district could seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for both new buildings, Pierce said. That could lead to future cost savings, he said.
There are more pros to building on the newly purchased site, which is “fairly flat” and open, Pierce said.
For both new constructions, the administration facilities could be moved to the high school for an added $1.1 million, with hopes of a long term savings, Pierce said.
Residents applauded the plans.
“I could not be more happy that we're all here considering this,” parent Jill Bertini said. “I wish it was 10 years ago that we were doing this and we could all be in the new high school right now, but it is what it is.”
The next step is for the school board to rank the options, Pierce said.
Yet, finances will play a role in that decision.
“One of the things that has been a staple of this board and this school district is fiscal prudence. And as much as we want these items to happen — we want to make our district look beautiful and accommodate all of our children for academic reasons — we can't lose sight of the fiscal prudency,” school board member Marianne Neel said. “We have to be conscious of what our residents, our constituents, can and cannot handle.”
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.