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Group battles Peebles Elementary closing

By Rick Wills Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

With the North Allegheny School Board poised to take public comment on whether to close Peebles Elementary School, opponents are galvanizing to prevent it. A group of parents and taxpayers calling themselves “Save NA Schools” are flooding the district‘s website, sending emails to the media, residents and school board members, and turning up at board meetings to protest any attempt to close Peebles.

They say a consultant‘s report recommending the closure ignores the fact that Bradford Woods Elementary needs $14 million of repairs, while Peebles does not.

Many group members are opposed to closing any schools.

“At the end of the day, what the board says does just not add up. Their actions with the school closings make no sense,” said Daneen Leya of McCandless, a mother of students in the district and a member of Save NA Schools.

Raymond Gualtieri, North Allegheny‘s superintendent, recommended closing Peebles to save $850,000. The district faces a $10 million deficit for the 2013-14 school year, he warned in November.

Yet a consultant‘s report says it would be more economical to close Bradford Woods. School board president Maureen Grosheider questions estimates in the report of the cost to repair Bradford Woods. The study is one of two commissioned by district. The second recommends closing Peebles.

“After the first study, the numbers for renovations just seemed excessive. The question became, ‘Are those numbers really real?‘ ” Grosheider said.

The board will hold the public hearing on Peebles on Jan. 30. A time and location have not been set. A board vote could come within 90 days of the hearing.

Ralph Pagone, one of two board members who voted last month against having a hearing, said the district is rushing the process.

“We are moving too fast. There are conflicting studies. The board did not like the first study and got a study that told them what they wanted to hear. They do not seem to be paying much attention to the public,” Pagone said.

The initial report from Architectural Innovation of Ross recommended closing Bradford Woods and keeping Peebles open. The board‘s majority favors a study by Jon Thomas of Thomas & Williamson construction consulting firm, also of Ross, which recommends closing Peebles.

James Construction Co. sued Thomas & Williamson and the school district over renovation work at North Allegheny in the late 1990s. James won damages of $524,087 from the district in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

“The fact that the district had a recommendation from 12 experts to close a school with $14 million in repairs and commissioned a ‘second opinion‘ from Jon Thomas is very suspect. Especially when you consider Mr. Thomas recommended closing a school with no repair costs and Judge (Timothy P.) O‘Reilly concluded he acted in ‘bad faith‘ the last time he served as a consultant for North Allegheny. This all begs the question: What was the real motivation in hiring Mr. Thomas?” said Tara Fisher, a parent of a Peebles student.

Jon Thomas could not be reached on Wednesday.

Pagone questioned the decision as well. “I am concerned with the outcome of that lawsuit. The findings were not good.”

Grosheider said Thomas has a record of success with the district.

“Mr. Thomas has done work for the district for many years, in many capacities. We have always had good results.”

 

Read more: http://triblive.com/neighborhoods/alleghenyneighborhoods/alleghenyneighborhoodsmore/3233983-74/board-district-peebles?printerfriendly=true#ixzz2HZI4Q2ZP

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“… the ‘take no prisoners’ attitude of Jon Thomas dashed all hope of developing an ameliorative relationship on this struggling project” —page 18 of the Court of Common Pleas Memorandum Order prepared by Judge O’Reilly.

At the December 19th school board meeting, it was revealed that the consultant who recommended closing Peebles cost the district a lawsuit for his prior work on the district’s elementary schools. The consultant is Jon Thomas of Thomas & Williamson. The case is James Construction v. North Allegheny and Thomas & Williamson. Below are some notable excerpts from the Memorandum Order prepared by Judge O’Reilly:  [click here for full text]

  • “James Construction, in its complaint, asserts that the delays in the project, which were not of its making, required it to speed up its work in order to complete the project, and as a result seeks damages from North Allegheny and Thomas & Williamson (T&W). It also seeks payment on several unpaid invoices, and further asserts a defamation claim against T&W. It also seeks the attorney’s fees and other exemplary damages under the PA Procurement Code.” (page 4)
  • “D&L was the predecessor project manager to T&W. North Allegheny hired T&W as the replacement project manager. Jon Thomas of T&W was acting as a “consultant” to North Allegheny. North Allegheny’s Project Facilities Manager, Rob Gaertner, was also involved.” (page 13)
  • “Assertions by the defense ignore the conditions and circumstances that prevailed on the project … One cannot turn a blind eye to [a memorandum], which Gaertner did not dispute-he just responded ‘Don’t mention it.'” (page 17)
  • “The termination of D&L, resistance by North Allegheny to even acknowledge delays, and the “take no prisoners” attitude of Jon Thomas dashed all hope of developing an ameliorative relationship on this struggling project. “(pages 18-19)
  • “My review and analysis of this involved case lead me to conclude that in addition to the funds due to James Construction for acceleration/compression, retention, and outstanding pay requests, counsel fees and expenses are due.” (page 25)
  • “After analysis, I also find that there was bad faith by North Allegheny as most vividly shown by the recognition of delay yet the refusal to do anything about it, other than to threaten the contractors with dismissal…I also find that while there is no libel by T&W, its unnecessary comments to Scabbo about James Construction are additional evidence of bad faith.” (pages 26- 27)

At the school board meeting last night, information came forward that the consultant who recommended closing Peebles Elementary was responsible for renovating several of the district’s elementary schools in the late 90’s and his work resulted in a lawsuit that cost the district half a million dollars. Below are the facts and information surrounding this situation:

  • In December 2011, a Phase 2 Demographics and Feasibility Study was commissioned by the district.  It hired construction management firm, Thomas and Williamson, to do the work. The December 5, 2012 Tiger News stated, “The Board was not comfortable with the demographic information or cost estimates” in the Phase 1 report so the Board “commissioned a second report to be done by a consulting firm with whom they were familiar from past projects.”
  • On August 22, 2012, Mr. Jon Thomas issued his Phase 2 Demographics and Feasibility Study.  Estimated repairs at Bradford Woods were reduced from $14 million to $8 million.  There were no estimated repairs listed for Peebles. Mr. Thomas recommended closing Peebles and concluded the population in McCandless would decline.  Mr. Thomas and Mr. Briem were the only experts listed in the report.  BWE Project Budget Summary.
  • In September 2012, a parent noted two issues in the Phase 2 report: (1) that the 2010 data used for population projections does not tie to the 2010 U.S. Census and, (2) that there is a mathematical error in the demographic section of the report which, when corrected, establishes that the population in McCandless will remain stable and not decline. Mr. Thomas acknowledged the mathematical error and that such conclusion be corrected, but could not provide an explanation for why the report understates the 2010 McCandless population by using data that doesn’t tie to the 2010 U.S. Census.  [Phase 2 Population projections] [SPC Municipal Profile 2010]
SaveNASchools believes that the district should NOT be relying on ANY advice from a consultant whose work caused the district legal issues in the past. Reliance on Mr. Thomas’s demographic information, enrollment projections, and other assumptions is NOT in the best interest of the district.
SaveNASchools believes that the district does NOT have the ability to close ANY elementary school without compromising its successful elementary education model.  Our recent posts illustrate that the remaining buildings will see an increase in class size, an increase in sections, and the need to operate non-classrooms as classrooms (displacing programs integral to the elementary curriculum).

The consultant who recommended closing Peebles Elementary cost the district half a million dollars for prior work on the district’s elementary schools. This information, brought forward at the school board meeting last evening, raises a long list of questions for both the Board and the Administration. Most importantly: Why did the district commission a consultant that cost the district half a million dollars to give a “second opinion” on a recommendation that came from 12 experts? What was the motivation behind hiring this consultant? And, are these the  practices and procedures that ensure the best use of taxpayer’s dollars?  Lawsuit- Full Text; North Allegheny Appeal- Full Text

The board voted 7-2 to schedule a public hearing last evening, which is the first step in the process for closing a school. Nearly 50 members of the North Allegheny community took to the microphone to express their concern, doubt, and disappointment at the process both the Board and the Administration are proceeding with for closing a school. A majority of the speakers noted that a petition with over 1,000 signatures requesting a community task force continues to be ignored by the Board. Residents from across the district, including several retirees, urged the Board to slow down the process and allow more time for due diligence to be achieved.

Parents from 5 of the 7 elementary schools explained that this movement is not about saving A school, it is about saving ALL seven. Larger class sizes, more sections per building, and students in non-classrooms were all sited as factors that will compromise the district’s successful elementary education model.

Today’s Post Gazette includes several letters to the editor that further detail the issues surrounding this recommendation and the lack of solid, empirical evidence, upon which the current recommendation is based. [To read the letters, click here.]

With mounds of evidence on their side, residents from across the district will now prepare for a public hearing on January 30th. As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”