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Heating fix at Penn Hills High School could cost up to $300,000 |
Penn Hills

Heating fix at Penn Hills High School could cost up to $300,000

Dillon Carr
| Tuesday, January 22, 2019 2:28 p.m
The main entrance to Penn Hills High School.

Penn Hills officials plan to reopen the district’s high school Wednesday but with a crippled heating system.

Superintendent Nancy Hines said heat in the building was spotty Tuesday morning after walking through the entire high school.

The district closed its high school Tuesday after learning Monday night that two of its five boilers responsible for heating the school had failed.

“The temperatures didn’t drop as much as we feared,” Hines said Tuesday after visiting the high school. “Many areas felt normal to me. Other areas felt very cold. We’re not going to put staff and kids in an unsafe situation. But it doesn’t have to be fixed today. The (weather) forecast is working with us.”

Temperatures are expected to be in the 40s on Wednesday. Hines could not say what the district plans to do when temperatures are expected to dip back down to the 20s by later this week.

The district is weighing how to fix the heating system. Hines suspects a design flaw is to blame for the failure this week during the freezing temperatures.

Fixing the heating system could cost the district $80,000 to $300,000 depending on what officials decide to do.

Hines said the district is considering options that include replacing the two broken heat exchangers at $40,000 each or replacing the heat exchangers’ housing at $60,000 each.

However, Hines said, those options do not address a design flaw in the system’s piping that may have affected the heat exchangers. If a design flaw exists, replacing the system could cost up to $300,000.

“The design flaw really concerns us. We’re strapped financially, so it doesn’t make sense to put a Band-Aid on it, because even to put a Band-Aid on it is a significant amount of money,” she said.

If officials opt to replace the system, work could not be completed until warmer months because the entire system would need to be shut down, Hines said. The superintendent could not say what the district would do in the meantime to heat the building.

The boiler system’s warranty has expired, further complicating the situation.

“The coverage had started in 2011, when the system was purchased, not installed,” Hines said. “It was installed a year later.”

School Board President Erin Vecchio blamed former business manager Richard Liberto, who was in charge of the district’s finances when the new high school was built and its boiler system was purchased and installed.

“(The boilers) should still be under some sort of guarantee. They’re not that old. It’s a brand new high school, the boiler shouldn’t go down,” Vecchio said.

Liberto, who now serves as finance director of Wilkinsburg School District, said blaming him for an expired warranty is ludicrous.

“I had nothing to do with that. That’s part of the construction project, which was purchased by bid. I have nothing to do with bids, boiler types, warranties — that’s all part of the construction project,” he said, ultimately putting the blame on the school board that approved the high school’s construction project.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. is in the middle of investigating allegations of bad decisions and lack of oversight that plunged the district into more than $170 million in debt. The state recently took charge of the debt-ridden district’s financial recovery efforts.

Vecchio said the issue with the boilers reflects a pattern of failing equipment in both new buildings.

“It seems like at every one of our committee meetings, we get a report of something in the brand new buildings that are broken. Not in the old buildings, the new ones,” Vecchio said.

She said the high school’s floors have been replaced and its air conditioning system has broken down “numerous times.”

Hines acknowledged there have been other equipment failures at the high school but did not cite specific examples.

“We’ve had issues, but not to this degree. This is just beyond what we can fix in this moment. We’re going to assess the situation and see what the best option is,” Hines said.

The Penn Hills School Board will meet for a regularly scheduled finance committee meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Linton Middle School. Hines said the boiler system will likely be discussed, along with a discussion about the state’s decision to take charge of the district’s financial recovery efforts. The meeting is open to the public.

Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, or via Twitter @dillonswriting.

Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 724-850-1298, or via Twitter .

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