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With rapid growth, South Fayette schools running out of room

| Monday, March 19, 2012

In 1996, the South Fayette School Board took a parting shot from a developer it turned down for tax credits.

He said no one would want to move there anyway because of the schools, said former Superintendent Linda Hippert, noting that the district enrolled 1,000 students in two school buildings.

"The belief was, 'We're a small school; we can't do ... fill in the blank.' There was no honors program, no Advanced Placement, just traditional courses where the students did very well," said Hippert, the executive director of Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead. "We took (the developer's statement) as a personal challenge."

As the district tackled that challenge with a revamped curriculum and high-quality teachers, South Fayette's open land attracted developers who built hundreds of large, modern homes in subdivisions on old farms and vacant industrial sites.

The development -- and a school district in which students excel in testing -- attracted young professionals, many with children and a median income of $68,034, 2010 census figures show.

Consequences have come with growth. As the township developed, South Fayette drew students faster than officials could build schools, leading one organization recently to declare it the state's fastest-growing school district during the past decade.

Former teacher and principal Ann Bisignani believes the school district's advances led some families to choose South Fayette over more established suburbs. For 2010-11, 95 percent of South Fayette's students scored proficient or advanced in mathematics, and 94 percent hit those marks in reading, on state achievement tests.

"People would be looking at Upper St. Clair, at Mt. Lebanon, at Peters, and Realtors would tell them to check us out," Bisignani said. "It led to it being a very attractive option among the South Hills communities."

Jennifer Iriti, 38, sought a place where she could settle down with her husband and their 4-year-old daughter. They narrowed their choices to Mt. Lebanon or South Fayette. As a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Resource and Development Center, she wanted a good school district.

"In particular, we were looking for places that had really high-quality teachers, teachers who are happy, who are excited about their work," said Iriti, who chose a house in the growing Berkshires subdivision near the school district's campus on Old Oakdale Road. "I actually called some teachers up on the phone, and I was impressed by how much they liked their jobs and the (South Fayette) leadership."

Iriti weighed Mt. Lebanon's more urban, walkable feel against South Fayette's newer homes. She found three- and four-bedroom houses with yards to be less expensive in South Fayette, and still close enough to Pittsburgh via Interstate 79.

With others choosing to live in South Fayette for similar reasons, its schools are running out of room.

The elementary school population in particular is bulging, growing from 675 students in 2001 to 1,044 in 2010, state Education Department records show. The district uses modular classrooms to accommodate students; a building for grades 3 to 5 won't open until August 2013.

The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, which represents business managers and finance officers, says South Fayette's average daily enrollment surged 34 percent between the 2001-02 and 2008-09 school years.

That's the biggest percentage increase for public school districts the association examined, said South Fayette Superintendent Bille Rondinelli.

Pennsylvania Department of Education figures show the district added 789 students between 2001 and 2011, a 46 percent increase.

With about 2,500 students last year, South Fayette ranks as Allegheny County's 23rd-largest school district, listed between Elizabeth Forward and Highlands among 42 public districts.

The boom helped South Fayette qualify for $25.75 million in low- and no-interest federal bonds to finance the elementary school under construction, said finance director Brian Tony.

But the district will need to consider expanding again when elementary students reach middle school and high school ages, Rondinelli said.

"The next area the district has to look at will be at the high school level," she said. "The current building won't hold the projected number of students."

South Fayette doesn't have the luxury to cut staff and teachers if it encounters budget problems, Rondinelli said. The district's overall budget climbed from $18.84 million in 2001-02 to $35.01 million in 2011-12; its tax rate rose from 18.79 mills to 27.833 mills.

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