Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hey, Teachers. Leave that school alone. Memo to Pgh Public Schools: Do NOT sell South Vo Tech

The board of Pittsburgh Public Schools is moving, again, to sell off a treasure -- South Vo Tech.

This should NOT happen.

Keep the school. Don't sell it. There are plenty of other wonderful uses for that building that need to occur. The buildings and space are with too much value. The site has always been a pivotal place for learning and employment.

There are few who are more 'free market driven' than me. And I say -- don't sell it off. The building is at a wonderful cross-roads. People can get there by foot, walking from town. Buses go. When the road is open, people can slip into the site from the mouth of the Liberty Bridge and Tunnel.

Here are some proposed uses:

1. Re-open a Vo-Tech High School!

South Vo Tech should have never closed. Pittsburgh needs a great Vo Tech program. We were promised a re-do of the Vo Tech opportunities when South Vo Tech closed.

2. Turn South Vo Tech's into a different school.

2a. Make it a K-8 building. The existing Phillips is not that good a building for K-5. There is no room for music, gym, science labs, nor expansion. The existing Phillips school could be great for pre-school and K. Grades 1-8 could fit into South. Or put one classroom for K for sibling preferences.

The residents in the "new urban high rise condos" that were slated for the east end of Station Square would find it ideal to send their kids to a South K-8, walking from 2nd Ave to 9th.

2b. Schenley High School might get a face-lift. The 9th graders of Schenley could go to South Vo Tech while the school gets a re-hab for a year.

2c. South Vo Tech could be a great charter school. Put the Science and Technology High School operated by Pgh Public Schools as a charter school there. Yes, as a charter school.

By the way, I don't like the idea of putting grades 6, 7 and 8 with the high school kids within one school.

2d. Make South Vo Tech a haven for 9th Grade Nation. Get the kids that are 'at risk' to have a specialized school to bone up on literature, algebra and writing. Then from this school, they could go to other district schools in 10, 11 and 12th grade.

3. Make South Vo Tech a regional park headquarters.

Put the Pittsburgh Park District there, next to the football stadium. Give the kids a great strength and condition space for year-round training in the basement of the building. All sports participants could use the gym, boys and girls, coaches and parents.

4. Put PCTV 21 studios into South Vo Tech.

There are big rooms, an auditorium and other spaces that would be 'sound proof' and ideal for a TV studio. PCTV is busting at the seams.

5. Make South Vo Tech a POLICE STATION.

The South Side (Zone 3) Police Station is way too small. The parking down by 18th Street is a mess. Keep that station for Fire. Bring EMS either to the 18th St. station, where they were before with fire. Or, bring EMS to the South Vo Tech too, along with the police.

6. Make the old South Vo Tech building a Student Union for bridging the gap from high school to college.

Duquesne, Point Park, RMU, Pitt, CMU and CCAC can all have distance based and outreach programs there. Lifelong learning, inter-generational programs, academic and non-academic courses could be offered. This setting could be a real 'community learning outreach hub.' ESL, drivers ed, PodCamps, music, Parenting groups, and a range of other course work opportunities could flourish there. Think of it as a Regional Enterprise Tower for hands-on learning.

Sell the hard to sell buildings first as there are only a few customers who will want them.

Another important reason to NOT sell South Vo Tech, at this moment, is because other more pressing neighborhoods need their vacant dark schools to be put to use first. South Vo Tech can be put into 'mothballs.' It is a big, visible building. Lots of people go by it all the time. If something bad should happen -- it would get seen and curtailed. Meanwhile, some of these other schools are much more remote. They can be breeding grounds for lots of nasty things that won't be easy to spot and prevent.

I think Knoxville and Hazlewood need help more than the South Side. They have empty school buildings that could be sold to private owners. Then the new business in those settings could help to turn those areas around. The South Side can survive with South Vo Tech in an idle condition. However, I'm not sure if the same holds true with these other neighborhoods.

Furthermore, let's say a high-flying tech start up needs a space for 'wet labs' or some such operation. They want to employ (I'm dreaming here...) 20 people in the first year and grow to 200 in six years. It could be Google, a bio-tech, a spin off from PPG or Bayer, etc. There are only so many of those customers out in the market. They need cheap, sturdy space with options for growth and custom build outs. A school building could fit their needs. But we are NEVER going to find 20 of those customers. We might find three. Sell off the buildings that buses can't get to easily. Sell off buildings that adults can navigate. Sell off some of the harder buildings first.

Otherwise, the demolition costs for the other 20 buildings is going to be expensive.

As a member of Pittsburgh's City Council, I look forward to the challenge of public discussions and measurements of assets. The role of stewardship has been fleeting for those on Grant Street. Facilities and building re-use is a great challenge and problem.

Even as the city's controller, there are plenty of ways we could insure that all the vacant public buildings -- such as schools and the indoor, closed, ice rink in the park -- can be utilized. We need spaces were we can teach kids how to play well with others. We need spaces were citizens can teach government entities how they too can play well together.

I swear, if we took a new look at parks and figured out how to blend responsibilities and entities in an open, responsible, forward thinking way -- that was saving the taxpayers and insisting on democratic decision making -- we'd be able to build skills, relationships and capacity for other topics yet to come.

Merge parks now. It would be fun and rich with expriences. Then the shift to saving pension funds can be made easy.

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