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Schenley alumni group wants to buy former high school, reopen it as digital arts learning center

| Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, 7:18 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
The former Schenley High School in Oakland.

A West Coast tech entrepreneur with Pittsburgh roots said on Friday he put together a group of investors and fellow Schenley High School alumni who will make a bid on the shuttered high school.

Edward Alexei, 42, a University of Pittsburgh graduate with fond memories of the high school, said his group wants to buy and renovate the building and reopen it as a private or charter high school with an emphasis on visual, audio and digital arts education.

Alexei said the group factored in the cost of purchasing and renovating the historic building and instituting a unique curriculum in the digital arts. He believes his group has a sustainable business model to operate a school with a track to higher education or employment in technology and entertainment industries.

“We are not seeking funding from the state, local or federal government. This project will be completely self-sustained,” he said.

Pittsburgh Public Schools officials will open bids for the school on Jan. 18. The district set a minimum bid of $4 million.

School board President Sharene Shealey said she learned of Alexei's plan through media reports. She was unaware of other bidders.

“This is a bid process, and if that's the bid the administration recommends, that's what it is,” she said.

The sale of Schenley and, later, 19 other vacant schools would offer the cash-starved district the opportunity to make millions of dollars. But it is reopening wounds.

This will be the second attempt to sell Schenley, which closed in 2008.

The district delayed an attempt in 2011 while it tried to find a community use for the enormous structure at North Bellefield Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard that is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Failing that, and after rejecting a bid to convert it to apartments, the board in September began soliciting new bids.

Alexei said his group was in Pittsburgh for a walk-through at the school on Nov. 27 and attended a question-and-answer session about it on Nov. 28.

Opponents of the sale believe the circumstances that led to the school's closing are suspect.

“You'll have a lot of controversy when the vote comes up. There are some of us who believe it shouldn't be sold, and we'll vote our conscience,” said board member Regina Holley, who in September voted against putting Schenley up for sale.

Holley, Mark Brentley Sr., Shealey and Tom Sumpter voted against the sale. Sherry Hazuda, Theresa Colaizzi, Jean Fink, Bill Isler and Floyd “Skip” McCrea voted for it.

Holley and Brentley signed an online petition that seeks an investigation into the process that led to the closing.

Cost of repairing the building and asbestos contamination were among reasons cited for the action.

The petition, which had 937 signatures this week, notes that a 2009 report by Kimball Architecture, Downtown, said only two of 476 samples of material from Schenley had asbestos of more than 1 percent.

Kimball said the cost of removing asbestos was nearly $1.1 million. Citing another report, a previous administration said it would have cost about $75 million to fix the building, including asbestos abatement.

District Solicitor Ira Weiss noted that in the end, Kimball sided with other consultants who recommended closure.

“Asbestos is only part of the issue,” Weiss said.

Bill Zlatos and Deb Erdley are reporters for Trib Total Media. Zlatos can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com. Erdley can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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