Cost of building schools raises concerns in McKeesport Area

As the cost to create three new elementary/intermediate schools in the McKeesport Area district escalates to almost $80 million, some community members and at least one school director are starting to question whether the board should complete all three schools. Those concerns were aired during public hearings last week on the Cornell Elementary/Intermediate School, where a ground breaking is scheduled soon, and the new Mc Keesport Elementary/Intermediate School, which is planned for construction on a 25-acre parcel near the Penn State Greater Allegheny campus.

Several residents and school director Tom Maglicco questioned whether the district should continue with its plans for construction near Greater Allegheny or postpone the project until the district is sure it can afford it.

This fall, the new Francis McClure Elementary/Intermediate in White Oak is expected to open at the start of school. The price tag for that building is $8.8 million. Francis McClure had served as an intermediate school, and the project involved a renovation to add an elementary wing and modernize the existing portions of the building.

The Cornell school, however, would be a newly constructed building erected at the McKeesport site of the former Cornell Intermediate School, which was razed.

At the public hearing, the district’s architects said the total cost of the building, including construction and soft costs such as architect and financing fees, is about $35 million.

The cost of the third school — the new McKeesport Elementary/Intermediate School — is expected to be close to the cost of the Cornell building. Its total costs, estimated in documents forwarded to the state, is just under $32 million, business manager David Seropian said.

Mr. Maglicco said the district already is facing an approximate 4-mill tax hike to finance Francis McClure and Cornell. That hike would go higher if the third school is built, he said.

According to state law passed with the 2012 budget, school districts cannot raise taxes above the inflationary index assigned to them each year for school construction without going to referendum.

Mr. Maglicco said for the McClure and Cornell projects, the board has received permission from the state to raise taxes in increments over several years.

But that permission has not been granted for the third building and Mr. Maglicco said he believes a tax hike beyond the rate of inflation for that school would have to go to referendum and he doubts the community would approve the tax hike.

“I’m afraid that in two or three years we will not have enough money to pay the debt service and we will have to cut programs and make furloughs,” Mr. Maglicco said.

He made a motion during a special meeting last week to table action on the McKeesport Elementary/Intermediate School until the board has a better handle on finances. But his motion did not receive a second.

The board then went on to vote 6-1 on several measures related to the construction plans and site acquisition for the school. The proposed site is known as the Bucks Mansion property, whose owner, Robert DeTorre, spoke out against the project at the public hearing held on the matter. It’s a 25-acre site that straddles White Oak and McKeesport.

Mr. DeTorre said he thought the building project was excessive for a district that has declining population in all four of its communities. Concerns about declining population and enrollment also were expressed by Ray Malinchak, McKeesport’s city controller.

Mr. DeTorre presented the board with a letter opposing the third school and providing population decline figures for Dravosburg, Versailles and White Oak boroughs and the City of McKeesport to be added to the official hearing record sent to the state Education Department.

Mr. DeTorre also said he had plans drawn up to subdivide the property for future development as a new housing plan and that using it for a school would block access for new homes in the district.

Architect Ryan Pierce said the district is not losing students at the rate that was predicted in a study that was done several years ago and that it appears the district will need the space provided by the three proposed schools.

Also expressing concerns about the escalating costs of the project was Keith Murphy, a spokesman for the McKeesport Political American African Committee. Mr. Murphy said in addition to the cost of the projects, his organization has concerns about the fact that it appears no minorities are employed at the McClure work site.

He said representatives from his organization have visited the McClure site 28 times and “not one person of color has been seen on the work site performing duties.”

Resident Scott Smith presented the board with an analysis that he performed on the three projects based on information and invoices he received from the district through a request under the state’s Right to Know law.

Mr. Smith said the current estimated cost for the three projects stands at $82 million, which he said was a significant increase over the original estimates for the project, about $45 million, according to Mr. Maglicco.