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Published in Print: October 7, 1998, as Administrators Joining Preservationists To Save Schools

Administrators Joining Preservationists To Save Schools

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Two years ago, the Brentwood, Pa., school board came up with a plan to save $6 million by renovating two old schools, rather than tearing them down to build new ones.

But when its request for state construction aid was rejected because of state restrictions on the schools' wood-frame construction, the board joined historic-preservation advocates in a two-year struggle to alter Pennsylvania policy.

Their efforts were rewarded last month when the state education department made it easier to qualify for aid to renovate older facilities.

But that new policy didn't come soon enough for Brentwood.

The 1,450-student system near Pittsburgh has already spent nearly $1 million to replace the schools' wood frames with steel and concrete to comply with the old rules.

"We were trying to level the playing field," said Ron Yochum, a Brentwood school board member and a policy specialist for the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

"The rules favoring new construction over preservation were not well founded."

Under Pennsylvania's old rules, renovation projects such as the Brentwood proposal faced the roadblock of a rule that excluded two-story, wood-frame schools from state construction aid.

While the rule was meant to address fire hazards, it was applied even if safety precautions such as sprinkler systems were installed in those buildings.

Districts also would not be reimbursed for renovations that cost more than 60 percent of replacement costs, a policy that deterred some renovation proposals.

Because of the complex and restrictive rules, critics say it was easier to plan new projects than try to upgrade older sites--even if the new construction was significantly more expensive.

'Path of Least Resistance'

"Our sense was that school district [building] consultants were taking the path of least resistance," said Caroline E. Boyce, the executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania, a state group that lobbied to change the policy. "And that was the path to new construction."

A special joint legislative hearing was held on the issue this summer, and the debate ended Sept. 8 when state Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok announced that the 60 percent cap and the "wood frame" exclusion were eliminated under new department guidelines.

A section was added to the state policy urging districts to "take all reasonable efforts" to preserve school buildings eligible for historic registers, and to find alternatives to abandonment or demolition if schools can't be upgraded.

"We heard from many Pennsylvanians who believed that the department's school construction guidelines ... encouraged school districts to build new buildings rather than renovate historic ones," Mr. Hickock said in a prepared statement. "These revisions will eliminate that misperception."

Model Efforts

But Pennsylvania is not the only state trying to salvage old schools.

A few others are likewise encouraging renovation as a way to preserve historic sites, keep communities united, and save money.

While the activity may not constitute a national trend, preservation advocates are elated over the reluctance to raze or abandon aged schools.

"We believe that money should be spent on renovating old buildings and not on building new ones," said Allison Daly, the director of the Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse, a nonprofit resource center at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington. "When schools close and leave, it fuels the fire of community loss."

By directing more attention and resources to saving older schools, Pennsylvania is following in the footsteps of several other states that have taken up similar battles.

Earlier this year in Maine, for example, officials began phasing in what will be a $200 million revolving renovation fund to improve existing schools.

Previously, state aid was available exclusively for new construction projects.

Connecticut has a 2-year-old policy that makes school renovation projects eligible for the same ratio of state aid as new construction.

And since 1991, Maryland has urged districts to give primary consideration to improving schools rather than rushing to build new ones.

In that time, the portion of state aid spent on renovating old schools vs. constructing new buildings has gone from 53 percent in fiscal 1991 to about 86 percent in the current fiscal year.

"We've taken a decided step to look at renovation, building on existing sites, and upgrading existing schools," said Yale Stenzler, the executive director of the Maryland Public School Construction Program, the state agency in charge of school construction.

Although renovating schools requires extensive work to deal with such major problems as asbestos and old wiring that cannot handle today's technology needs, Mr. Stenzler acknowledges that Maryland's older schools were pretty well built.

But when they're not, he adds, the argument for saving them is weak.

"You can't just look at its age and say it has to be saved," he said. "Some old buildings have to be demolished."

Vol. 18, Issue 6, Pages 16,19

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