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Board seeks new school building

| Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001

Hastily built after a fire destroyed the original building in 1916, Wilkinsburg's Johnston Elementary lacks many things that other schools take for granted.

There is no gymnasium, no kitchen, no art or music room, no parking area and no room large enough to assemble all of the school's 420 students.

Principal Susan Heatherington said while the students and teachers do their best to deal with the building's limitations, 'it was built for an era that doesn't exist anymore.'

Teachers have made office space in hall closets and sometimes search in vein for wall sockets.

'With todays technology, one or two outlets in a room just doesn't meet the need,' she said. 'We'd like to get at least into the 20th century.'

Two members of Wilkinsburg's school board met recently with U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, a Swissvale Democrat, to express their support for legislation that could bring the district money to replace the school.

'He's on the same page we're on. We're happy with the positions he's taken,' said Wilkinsburg School Board President Jean Dexheimer said.

'But even when your congressman agrees with you, it's good to get on your representatives and let them know how you feel, so when they get back to Washington they can honestly say that they're getting pressure from constituents.'

A bill co-sponsored by Doyle would provide $22 billion in zero interest bonds for school construction and modernization over the next two years.

'A district like Wilkinsburg could clearly take advantage of this,' Doyle said.

Doyle said he believes the bill would have a good chance at passing if it came to a vote, but 'this bill is bottled up in committee and not likely to come to the floor this year,' he said.

Dexheimer said replacing Johnston would be the district's priority if they received funding through the legislation.

'That would be our first choice,' Dexheimer said. 'We of course don't have the money to do it right now, and we have so many other maintenance projects that need to be done.'

In particular, she said it will take more then $5 million to get all the district's buildings in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Dexheimer and board member Raymond Griffith also spoke with Doyle about another bill he has co-sponsored that would increase federal support for special education.

She said federal laws on the books since the 1970s setting requirements for how schools serve students with special needs amount to an unfunded mandate and districts like Wilkinsburg, with especially high numbers of special education students, fare the worst.

'The system we have does not take into consideration the percentage of special education kids you have or the cost of supporting them,' Dexheimer said.

Doyle said the federal government has never provided much more than 15 percent of special education funding.

'We've charged them (school districts) with educating people with disabilities with the understanding that we would fund 40 percent, and we've never done that,' Doyle said.

Dexheimer said about a third of the property taxes collected by the district are spent on special education.

She said both bills are important because, though President Bush's education bill includes a $5 billion increase in education spending, 'The president's education bill has neither special education funding nor funding for school construction.'

Doyle said plans to push the education bills are suddenly on the back burner, as Tuesday morning's attacks on New York and Washington have understandably changed Congress' priorities and agenda.

'Given the events of this week, it's become completely unclear what's going to happen legislatively,' he said.

Brandon Keat can be reached at bkeat@tribweb.com or (412) 380-8546.

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