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South Hills

West Jefferson Hills revisiting rental policy in anticipation of increased requests

| Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, 11:54 a.m.

West Jefferson Hills leaders are updating the district’s facilities rental policy and fee structure, as they prepare for the multitude of requests they anticipate will come with the opening of the new $95 million Thomas Jefferson High School.

Superintendent Michael Ghilani said leaders know requests to use school space are going to pour in, and they need to determine how those spaces can be used.

The district’s current policy is “very broad,” district Solicitor Robert McTiernan said.

One requirement is that most members of a group seeking to rent space are district residents. Such is the case for Redemption Hill Church, which has been meeting and holding services at Pleasant Hills Middle School for several weeks.

Redemption Hill, according to its website, is a new church of the Presbyterian Church in America. The Rev. Peter Doerfler, a Pleasant Hills resident, declined to comment.

The district was approached several months ago about allowing the church to rent space for meetings, Ghilani said. Ghilani said while it is not uncommon for districts to rent spaces to churches, he first talked with the McTiernan to ensure it was allowed.

At first, the church rented space to hold “casual meetings,” Ghilani said. “It’s been going on for a while.”

The church has been advertising monthly “spotlight” services held at the school since at least May. Its first “kick-off service” was held Sept. 23, according to its website.

Under the district’s facilities policy, the church qualifies as a community group consisting of at least 95 percent community members, according to Nick Fierst, district facilities manager. Therefore, they have only been charged “applicable custodial fees” for use of the cafeteria and two classrooms.

The district does not have a long-term agreement with the church, because the new policy is in the works, Ghilani said.

District leaders are exploring the option of limiting availability of rentals to “uses that promote or advance the educational mission of the district,” McTiernan said.

The possible policy change wouldn’t be to exclude groups — such as religious or political organizations — from meeting in the school, McTiernan said. However, it would be to ensure that with the anticipated high demand for space rental, groups with “related educational functions” would have the ability to use district facilities.

The policy change also likely will include an updated fee structure.

“In that respect, even if they qualify, they might not want to pay the fees that we want to propose to them,” Ghilani said.

All of this will be determined through conversations between administrators, board members and the solicitor, Ghilani said.

Until that decision is made, the district is “legally permitted” to allow religious and political groups to meet in its facilities, McTiernan said. Districts must follow their own policies when allowing groups to rent space and “neutrally administer” and enforce them, he said.

Ghilani said when Redemption Hill started advertising its services at PHMS, he did receive some complaints from a small number of residents. At the time, the church’s website “made it look like there was a clear connection to the school district,” he said.

He approached the pastor and told him if the church wanted to keep renting space at the school, they had to put a disclaimer on all advertisements indicating there is no affiliation with the school district. The church complied, Ghilani said.

Fierst said the district will closely monitor the group as it grows in size to determine if it exceeds the non-community member ratio.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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