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District presses to close Schenley

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By Bill Zlatos
Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007

Sixty-eight percent of the materials tested at Schenley High School contained asbestos, according to a report released Monday by city schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt.

AGX Inc., Wexford-based environmental consultants, collected 406 samples from the plaster, ceiling, tiles, carpet and other areas of the Oakland school and found that 277 contained asbestos.

The firm collected the samples five years ago, but the Pittsburgh Public Schools released the data for the first time to quell concerns that the district was overreacting to the asbestos problem.

"This is the only building I know (in the district) where every ceiling, every wall on every floor has asbestos in it," said Richard Fellers, the district's chief operating officer, during a tour of the building with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

The danger of the asbestos and falling plaster, coupled with the cost of renovating the school, has prompted Roosevelt to recommend for a second time that the school board close Schenley after this school year.

During the past four years, estimates for the cost of abating the asbestos and renovating the building's mechanical systems have ranged from $42.4 million to $86.9 million. Roosevelt has touted $64.4 million as the best estimate.

"You're talking about a basic gut job where every system needs to be replaced," Roosevelt said at a news conference yesterday.

Fellers and a team of architects and other professionals noted some of the 10,000 patches made to repair falling plaster last summer. Asbestos was used in the 91-year-old building for binding plaster, insulation and as a fire retardant.

Patches, bubbles or sites of fallen plaster sealed with bridging compound could be seen in some hallways. In some stairwells, hallways or classrooms, fallen plaster had caused holes or exposed the brick behind a radiator.

Roosevelt assured that the school is safe. He said the district monitors the plaster three times a week and the air quality once a week.

"Every decision I make is based on the question: 'Would this be right for my child?' " Roosevelt said.

He has suggested that Schenley's ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders go to the former Reizenstein school in East Liberty and graduate with a Schenley diploma.

Schenley's asbestos problem is compounded by a lack of ventilation that causes the plaster to bubble and fall. Because of the school's historic status, Fellers said, the district was required to choose a type of window that preserved the building's architectural character but accelerated its deterioration through insufficient ventilation.

The proposal to close Schenley has stirred student and parent protests. Schenley advocates went to Allegheny Common Pleas Court last week in an unsuccessful attempt to block the school board from hiring an architect and construction manager for the renovation of Reizenstein.

The uncertainty over the school's fate has caused a family feud.

Vidya Patil, the district's acting director of facilities, is in charge of maintaining the building and keeping it safe. His daughter, Oona, 16, is a junior at Schenley and unhappy with the proposal to close it.

"I'm very concerned about the deteriorating condition in the building -- particularly the asbestos," Patil said. "The amount of monitoring and dollars it takes to keep it safe is almost unbearable."

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