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Quaker Valley to seek referendum to fund new high school

| Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, 1:27 p.m.
Quaker Valley High School
Quaker Valley High School

Quaker Valley taxpayers could be asked to support borrowing money to build a new high school on a hilltop spot in Edgeworth, projected to cost at least $70 million to replace the current century-old building with a modern one featuring more flexible and open spaces.

A referendum question to borrow for the project could come in the next year, district officials said Thursday. That means a separate question would appear on the ballot during an election. The timing, the amount, and the impact on property taxes isn't finalized.

“A project like this can serve the broader community, and fleshing out these kinds of returns on the investment is what's going to be a critical part of preparing for a referendum,” said Robert Riker, school board vice president. “We need to continue this conversation with the community to illuminate what things will be most important and how we can create a building project that serves everyone here.”

District officials in the next two weeks aim to finalize purchase of about 130 acres in Edgeworth, Leet Township and Leetsdale off Camp Meeting Road for up to $7.5 million, from Three Rivers Trust. Billionaire businessman Thomas Tull planned to build a home and farm for he and his family, but later abandoned those plans. The property also contains a stone mansion built in in 1904 for the Walker family.

Riker, board President Sarah Heres and Superintendent Heidi Ondek on Thursday said the district will lay out a more specific plan that includes timing and cost of a new building in the coming months.

“I think the closest we've gotten at this point the referendum number would end up in the $70 (million) to $90 million range,” Riker said.

The project is long-range: It would take about five years from the time of land purchase to build the school, Ondek said.

District leaders now are gathering more input from residents, they said, which is a continuation of months of discussions with the community about addressing the need for a new high school space.

Residents can learn more during a series of public meetings at 6:15 p.m. Jan. 22 and 9:15 a.m. Feb. 3 and Feb. 19 in the high school library.

“It's important for our community to appreciate the opportunity before us and to share in the ownership of the challenge and to engage as citizens on behalf of our community schoolchildren,” Ondek said.

The high school on Beaver Street in Leetsdale enrolls about 600 students and is among the oldest suburban high school buildings in Allegheny County. It was the original Leetsdale High, but in recent years leaders have struggled to find options to replace or renovate the building, which doesn't contain enough parking spots or room for administrative offices.

There is no central air conditioning system — window units instead are used to circulate fresh air and keep rooms cool. The building isn't fully ADA-compliant and there's not enough room to create more spaces.

“A high school is a community's flagship or ought to be. And it isn't right now,” Ondek said.

They purchased two homes in 2012 for about $400,000 with plans to expand the high school, later abandoning the approach because the site wasn't suitable.

Ondek said the district wants to be “fiscally responsible” while also meeting the needs of students in the 21st century.

“We envision spaces that are flexible, serve multiple purposes and really drive best practices in learning and teaching,” she said. “For instance, we have a very traditional high school with boxes of classrooms along corridors and that's not the way children learn and interact. That's not the way humans interact. We need spaces that foster collaboration.”

Quaker Valley joins other suburban districts that in recent years that have renovated or built new high schools.

Mt. Lebanon and South Fayette completed renovations to high schools, while Chartiers Valley is in the midst of a project, and neighboring Moon Area opened its new high school several years ago. West Jefferson Hills built up a surplus for several years to afford a new high school, with an estimated cost about $95 million.

Kimberly Palmiero is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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