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Peters Township High School project proceeding well despite weather

Despite some delays caused by a rainy June, the Peters Township High School construction project appears to be in good position to meet its next milestone in a timely manner.

Roshelle Fennell of Reynolds Construction LLC, construction management firm for the project, said at the June 24 school board meeting the new building should be enclosed in plenty of time so that work can proceed on the interior during the winter toward a targeted completion in fall 2020.

The weather was responsible for postponing facets of the project including delivery of long-span joists for the main gymnasium, installation of structural steel in the fine arts wing and starting bricklaying for the academic wing, which Fennell said is about three weeks behind.

“In the overall scale of that project, I’m still happy with that,” she told the board.

The meeting’s agenda included approval of several change orders from contractors related to the project, in progress at the former Rolling Hills Country Club property off East McMurray Road. Including one resulting in a credit to the district, the net addition to the project’s cost is $67,219.73.

Courtesy of Peters Township School District

Built into the project is a contingency fund for change orders and other unanticipated expenditures, currently standing at $1.4 million, according to the Rev. Jamison Hardy, who chairs the school board’s finance committee. He said, though, he objects to some of the requests for payment.

“They come asking us to approve these change orders when, in my reading of this, these are things that are responsibilities of other people,” Hardy said.

Mark Duane, a principal of project architect Hayes Design Group, explained contractors work together to produce detailed “coordination drawings” from the basic designs.

“That’s when they find things. And actually, a lot of times things are found that are just corrected at no cost,” he said. “They’re helping us find the right way to do it. And we’re working with them, in conjunction with the contractors, when they identify these things.”

In other business at the June 24 meeting:

n The board voted to adopt the school district’s 2019-20 general fund budget of $68.16 million, and along with it a real estate tax increase of .31 mills, bringing the rate to 13.81 mills.

With the increase, the owner of property assessed at $300,000 pays an extra $93 for the coming year.

“In my whole time serving on this school board, this is the one area that continually impresses me with the administration. When we get our audit every year, you hear me highlight the expenses versus projected,” Hardy said. “And for the taxpayers, I can tell you that there is no better tax money spent than when your administration is able to hold tight to the budget and still perform, as last year, being the No. 1 school district in the state.”

Last year, Peters Township had the highest Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores, combined for all grades and all subjects, in Pennsylvania.

Also pertaining to finances, the board approved assigning $8.5 million in surplus funds for future debt service obligation, $4.5 million, and increases in employer contributions to the Public School Employees Retirement System, $4 million.

The remaining unreserved, undesignated fund balance is an estimated $2.434 million.

n Two administrators received new titles by unanimous board vote. Jennifer Murphy becomes deputy superintendent, and stepping into her position as assistant superintendent for a five-year term as of July 1 is Michael Fisher, currently assistant to the superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Tracy Bidoli was reappointed as the district’s director of transportation and Robert Conley as supervisor of buildings and grounds, both for three-year terms.

Harry Funk / Harry Funk/The Almanac 

Harry Funk/The Almanac

View of the new Peters Township High School from East McMurray Road

National Student Council Conference kicks off with energy, enthusiasm in South Fayette

MCDONALD – “There’s a lot of energy in this room.”

That was the assessment of David Volkman, the executive deputy secretary in the Pennsylvania Department of Education, when he was addressing students at South Fayette High School Monday morning, and few observers would have contradicted him.

Volkman was at the high school to address the opening of the National Student Council Conference, which is bringing together hundreds of students from around the country and Puerto Rico for three days of workshops, seminars and speakers, all designed to sharpen their skills and make them better leaders when they head back home.

The start of the conference was, without question, spirited. Pulsing dance music thumped throughout an auditorium as a countdown clock displayed how many minutes and seconds were left before the conference started. South Fayette’s marching band pounded its way through a couple of numbers, and flags from each state represented at the conference were displayed before the more serious business of the get-together got underway. Volkman urged the students to be engaged with the world, both in their current capacity and as they get older.

“We have to live in the present, with today’s deposit of time,” Volkman said. He noted there are 86,400 seconds in each day and “use all of the 86,400 seconds wisely.”

Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County’s executive, pointed out that the students in the auditorium would one day be called upon to help solve some of America and the world’s most nagging problems, including automation and environmental sustainability, and they should “continue to stay engaged.”

This is the second time the National Student Council Conference has happened in the Pittsburgh region; the first time was in 1985, when Bethel Park High School hosted it. The grandfather of Dan Pollock, a member of South Fayette High School’s most recent graduating class and one of two student co-chairmen of the conference, was the conference host adviser for Bethel Park’s conference 34 years ago.

South Fayette submitted its application a year ago to host the conference, which is presented by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The organization also administers the National Honor Society and the National Junior Honor Society. The theme of this year’s conference is “Forging Student Leaders,” based on Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage.

Bethel Park School Board passes unexpected tax cut

Bethel Park School Board passed an unexpected tax cut at its’ June 25 meeting.

The board voted 6-3 to lower the property tax rate by 8.2 percent, from 22.8763 mills to 21 mills. The move will reduce revenue by about $4.7 million and homeowners should see a savings of $187.63 a year on a property assessed at $100,000.

Board members were expected to adopt an $89 million budget for the 2019-20 school year that would have kept the tax rate the same for the fourth consecutive year.

In the months leading up to the vote, the board held no public budget deliberations, which hinted at a desire from some board members to reduce the property tax rate.

That prompted members of the board’s minority, those who have resisted some efforts to cut staff, to cry foul.

“This is one of the most fiscally irresponsible things I have ever seen,” said Director Barry Christianson.

Christianson, who voted against the tax cut along with Directors Pam Dobos and Ken Nagel, argued if the board’s majority wanted a reduction to the property tax rate, they should have explored that issue months ago. That way, district administrators would have had time to analyze the finances to determine the impact a rate reduction would have on the fund balance and future years’ budgets.

Board President Donna Cook noted Bethel Park’s fund balance stands at about $20 million and the district is in very strong financial shape, so it’s time to give some of that money back.

“The taxpayers deserve some of this relief,” she said.

Bethel Park’s reserve fund is estimated to be $20 million, but most of that has been assigned to cover future pension and health insurance costs. Leonard Corazzi, director of finance, said about $6.4 million has been set aside for pension obligations and about the same amount has been earmarked for health insurance.

The district holds about $5.9 million in unassigned reserves and the pre-tax cut budget already called for withdrawing $995,050 from those reserves to balance the budget. That withdrawal will have to be much larger after the tax rate reduction and the unassigned fund balance could be as low as $200,000 by this time next year.

However, Corazzi said the board could opt to change the allocations in the reserve fund and set aside less money for future pension and health insurance costs, which should free some money to be used for other purposes.

Cook said it would be prudent to do so, since the district has been reducing staff through attrition for the past several years and future pension obligations should be lower.

Nagel said the tax cut was a political move in light of last month’s primary, where most incumbent school directors who were up for re-election were defeated on both the Democrat and Republican ballots. The reduction in revenue will hamper the new board’s efforts to reduce class sizes and invest in special education, Nagel said.

“You are circumventing the will of the public to hamstring this incoming school board,” he said.

As it stands, Jim Means and Christianson will be the only incumbents listed on the general election ballot, which will also see newcomers James Modrak, Kimberly Walsh Turner, Darren McGregor and Vincent Scalzo vying for five board seats. Incumbents Cook, Ronald Werkmeister and David Amaditz were all defeated on both parties’ ballots.

Werkmeister said he was motivated to broach the issue of a tax reduction after hearing from constituents, who insisted they were overly burdened by high taxes.

Director Cynthia Buckley noted children have to be the district’s first priority, but the board also has an obligation to hold spending in check. She cautioned against excessive spending as seen in other school districts and she urged taxpayers to pay attention.

“It’s important going forward into future school years that people watch the decisions being made and how they’re made,” she said.

Christenson said the six board members who voted for the tax cut must have met privately to hash out this plan, which could be a violation of the state’s Sunshine Act. He cited the prepared remarks that some board members delivered as evidence.

He noted the tax rate reduction went against the recommendation set forth by the superintendent and the finance director, who recommended the board adopt a $89 million spending plan that kept the tax rate unchanged.

Three members of the public expressed their disapproval, noting the tax cut would be temporary and the board would have to raise taxes in the future to fund educational programs, now that the board decided make such a large withdrawal from its savings.

“It’s a debacle,” said Sharon Janosik. “It’s sad and disappointing.”

She chastised the board for not discussing the idea in any of the budget meetings that were held in the months leading up to the budget adoption and questioned the reasons why the board would pass such a measure less than a week before the board is required by state law to adopt a budget.