The Steel Valley School District recently held an ACT 34 hearing to solicit public feedback on plans for a new elementary school. As we move forward through the planning process and continue to collect feedback, here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) we have received during the process. This list is not meant to be exhaustive.
The ACT 34 hearing was held on Thursday, June 22, 2023. A booklet with details of the proposed project was provided at the meeting and is available to read here.
New Elementary School FAQ
Q: Why are we all of a sudden looking to build an elementary school?
A: Building a new elementary school has been a serious consideration for many years, because the aged condition of the physical plant of our elementary schools and the de facto segregation of our youngest learners have existed for decades. In 2017 a feasibility study by a team of CMU graduate students, which took into account survey results from ~450 local residents, analyzed the construction of a new elementary school and the redevelopment of the property around West Field. That study was requested by Mr. Wehrer. More survey responses favored a new school on the High School campus vs. a new school near West Field, and Munhall Borough decided to move into the Willis Center next to the field.
After a Town Hall meeting in October of 2019 to solicit ideas on how to bring our students together in all grades, Mr. Wehrer convened a team of stakeholders to go through a planning process about how best to educate all of our students together. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic shutdown in March of 2020 abruptly derailed the momentum that had been developed by that team. In 2021, Mr. Wehrer proposed a new strategic direction for the school district, Steel Valley Stronger. The vision of that plan was to have our youngest students learn together in a new school building. The district commissioned VEBH Architects, which became DRAW Collective, to conduct a feasibility study and eventually to do the preliminary design work for the new school.
Q: Why does Mr. Wehrer feel so strongly about the new school?
A: Mr. Wehrer replied, “I view the construction of a new school as a necessary investment in the future of our community and its most valuable asset: our children. I believe we sit at a tipping point: either we look to grow, or we accept the current environment and hope that we do not enter a stagnant decline. To me, the status quo is unacceptable.”
Q: How much will the new school cost?
A: At this point in time, DRAW Collective estimates that the total cost of the new school will be between $48 million and $50 million. Until construction companies put in bids to do the construction work, we have to rely on the estimates of our experts. DRAW Collective estimates the cost of the actual building to be between $38 million and $40 million. Soft costs (such as professional fees, construction management, inspections, testing, permitting, printing, legal fees and financing costs) make up the majority of the other $10 million.
Q: Where does the $56 million figure come from?
A: The state requires school districts to go through the Act 34 process for major renovations or new school construction. Given the parameters of our project, the Act 34 process calculated a maximum construction cost of $56 million, which is the number that had to be approved by the school board.
Q: How will this impact my school district taxes?
A: School taxes have increased primarily due to increased pension costs, charter school costs, and inflation. The new school will not be solely responsible for any future tax increases, however the Act 34 process requires the district to calculate the annual costs of new debt as a millage figure. The proposed debt increase equates to 3.73 mills. That would mean that by 2026, when the full cost of new debt service will be part of our budget, if your house is assessed at $100,000, then $373 of your annual tax bill (or $31 per month) would be allotted to the cost of the new school. For the median home value in our district of $74,000, $276 of your annual tax bill (or $23 per month) would be allocated to the cost of the new school.
Q: Why aren’t we fixing the current schools?
A: In 2014 Tower Engineering did a feasibility study on renovating our existing elementary schools. That study only analyzed the costs of replacing or repairing the mechanical systems in those schools. Replacing the systems on such old buildings makes more sense than just repairing them. The estimate for replacing the mechanical systems for Franklin and Park was $10.2 million back in 2014. We asked our construction manager, Eckles Construction, what the cost would be today. The current estimate is $25.4 million. After spending the $25.4 million, we would continue to have old buildings (Park was constructed in 1909) that lack modern safety features, accessibility for the physically disabled, and state-of-the-art learning spaces.
Q: Did you even look at the Woodlawn space?
A: A small part of the Woodlawn property will be used for an access road for buses for the new school. The board of school directors is evaluating how best to use that property, but we know that every $10 million in property value generates $277,000 in property taxes (based on the ‘23-’24 millage rate). A new housing development next to the new elementary school would be mutually beneficial and a boon to the community.
Q: Why did the price estimate for the new school go up?
A: Multiple factors worked together to increase the cost of the building construction. Core drilling of the land where the school, driveways and parking lots would be built revealed the presence of reactive slag, which will have to be removed and replaced with clean fill. Also, construction costs have risen considerably over the past couple of years during this period of higher inflation.
Q: What’s the cost of busing?
A: The district continues to analyze and evaluate transportation alternatives. For a number of years, the district provided a shuttle to Franklin from both Park and Barrett. With the new school being built in the same area as Franklin, a shuttle system might be a good option. Other considerations could complement a shuttle system, such as creating a larger breakfast and before-school program at Barrett once the new school is built. All students attending such a program would then ride the shuttle to the new school.
Q: What will happen to the existing elementary schools?
A: Franklin would be demolished as part of the construction of the new school. Park will either be sold or demolished; the school will not sit vacant for years to come like Woodlawn did. Barrett will be used for Administration and early childhood education.
Q: How many students are currently enrolled at Steel Valley?
A: Enrollment for the 23-24 school year is still open. Enrollment at the close of 22-23 for K-12 was 1,375.
Q: How many students are currently enrolled in Kindergarten?
A: Enrollment for the 23-24 school year is still open. Enrollment at the close of 22-23 for Kindergarten was 120, and first grade was at 133.
Q: Have we looked at alternative sources of funding for all/part of the project (beyond bonds)?
A: We have received a $1 million grant from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP), which is administered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We are eligible to apply for additional RACP grants for this project, and we plan to do so. We also plan to seek foundation grants and private donations.
Q: Will teachers and/or staff lose their jobs?
A: We are working to minimize possible furloughs during consolidation through retirements, and doing so will require the Board to be disciplined in its decision-making. Steel Valley is a major employer in our community, and our financial health has direct ties to the wellbeing of our staff, our students and their families.
Q: How would it impact the plans/projected cost/project momentum if we waited for better economic times?
A: Costs always will be escalating due to the market conditions and the economy. Typically construction costs see a steady rise rather than a decline from year to year. Costs could increase by 3-5% each year and as much as 10% in today’s volatile market. Waiting for the perfect conditions is likely to be a futile effort.
Q: Can the school board do a referendum on the construction of a new elementary school?
From our solicitor: The pertinent section of the School Code, 24-PS 701.1 Referendum or Public Hearing, requires the School District to opt for either a public hearing pursuant to Act 34 or a referendum. The Act does not permit the School District to hold an advisory referendum. In the case of Hempfield School District v. Election Bd. of Lancaster; 574 A2d 1190 Pa. Commonw. (1990); the Court held that an advisory referendum is not permitted by statute. The School District must choose either a hearing or a binding referendum, not both. The School District has already opted for and held an act 34 hearing. The School Code provides the Board with only two options from which to choose. Once an option is exercised, the School Code does not require any other action. I could not find any case law where a District did both on the same construction plan.
Q: What is the next step?
A: Now that the required 30-day public comment period for the Act 34 Hearing has ended, we are no longer accepting additional comments and questions. We are still working on providing answers for some questions we received during this process and will update this FAQ when new information is available.
Published on June 30, 2023. Updated July 27, 2023.