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Law Loosens Rules for Selling Old City Schools

July 22, 2008

By Tim Puko, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 22–A change in state law gives Pittsburgh Public Schools more flexibility in unloading its older, unused buildings.

The district no longer needs court oversight to sell unused buildings without auction or sealed bids, and can opt to give them to the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

State legislators included the change — affecting only Pittsburgh — in the state school code. District and authority officials created the plan as a way to expedite the sale of 21 empty buildings and ensure their uses benefit surrounding communities, they said.

Critics are skeptical, saying the language could open doors to ill-advised or underhanded deals. Others said it opens up time for negotiation between the district and neighborhood groups concerned about how the buildings will be used.

“It’s a double-edged sword. It could be a very good thing, because the school board is under the (obligation) to sell to the very highest bidders, and when that happens, sometimes the highest bidder isn’t the guy with the best plan for the community,” said Rob Pfaffmann, a Downtown architect who has worked with a group trying to preserve Schenley High School in Oakland.

“It’s a good idea, I support it, but one has to be careful: Any law can be abused,” Pfaffmann said.

The district has 20 buildings for sale and closed Schenley last month. Dwindling enrollment has left buildings at less than capacity around the district, and officials have sought a resolution since Superintendent Mark Roosevelt’s “right-sizing” plan closed 17 buildings in 2006.

Leaders say the district pays $1.5 million annually for upkeep on closed buildings. Two local companies have appraised the buildings at $7 million. The Allegheny County assessment Web site lists the properties’ combined assessed values at more than $25 million.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, an Urban Redevelopment Authority board member, said he and URA officials have been discussing the future of the buildings with school officials and the authority is working on two sales.

“We’re just adding another opportunity for the board to engage in this collaborative to get the highest and best use” for these buildings, Ferlo said.

It can be difficult to attract potential buyers to commit to a mutually beneficial plan when everything can be overturned by a judge, district solicitor Ira Weiss said.

The district can avoid that by getting three appraisals showing that a sale would provide better returns than seeking sealed bids. There also can be a public auction.

“I think this is just Pandora’s Box,” said Robert P. Strauss, an economics and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “If you don’t advertise and you don’t take sealed bids, it’s an open invitation for giving away public property for a pittance.”

Vague wording that doesn’t require the appraisers to be independent could make the law open for exploitation, he said. School board member Mark Brentley Sr., a longtime opponent of Roosevelt, said the law was consistent with “borderline unethical things coming from the leadership.”

Suburban districts, which never have as much property as Pittsburgh, let alone as much property to sell, don’t need special provisions, three suburban officials said.

“I think it’s just a different kind of situation,” Allegheny Intermediate Unit spokeswoman Sarah Zablotsky said. “I really don’t get the sense that this is a big deal for suburban districts, but for Pittsburgh Public Schools this kind of legislation is at least understandable.”

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