Save the Ambridge Area High School
A shortsighted proposal to demolish, rather than renovate, a fine building shows the need for state oversight
Sunday, August 7, 2005
By Thomas Hylton
For more than a year, the Ambridge Area School District has been absorbed in a fierce struggle over a proposed new $44 million high school that proponents say will help revitalize the community.
The pro-building majority on the school board appears on the verge of victory. Although an anti-building faction is almost certain to take control of the school board in December, the current board hopes to award bids this month and break ground for the school in September. By the time the new directors are seated, the project may be too far along to cancel.
The issue is not purely local. About $5 million of the school´s cost will be funded by the state. Each year, statewide, Pennsylvania doles out more than $275 million in subsidies to school districts for new and renovated schools.
Although the Department of Education requires a lengthy review process before approving school construction subsidies, none of it involves determining whether the project has merit. If a school district says it needs a new or renovated school, state funding is virtually guaranteed. The review process consists mostly of ensuring the classrooms are the right size and the necessary permits have been obtained.
This system needs to be reformed, and the proposed new Ambridge Area High School is a classic example of why state oversight - rather than a rubber stamp - is needed.
Like many older industrial towns, Ambridge lost its major industries as globalization transformed the economy in the 1970s and 1980s. With aging infrastructure and a large elderly population, the borough is heavily indebted and was officially "distressed" for several years. Both the borough and the Ambridge Area School District have among the highest property taxes in Beaver County.
The district´s student population has been declining for years. At present, Ambridge High School has about 1,050 students, well under its capacity, and that enrollment is expected to drop nearly 25 percent over the next 10 years.
Nevertheless, the school district is planning a high school for 1,250 students. The new school will be constructed on the same 14-acre tract as the existing high school, shoehorned on the site of a ballfield and tennis courts. A 1980 brick field house connected to the current high school will be retained, but the high school itself will be demolished.
Last year, the high school, a three-story steel and masonry structure built in 1928, was declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Aside from Old Economy Village, a state historic site, the high school is the most distinctive building in Ambridge, a borough that has a 16-block historic district and is trying to capitalize on its architectural heritage.
According to the national organization that sets school building guidelines, the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International, well-built older schools can usually be renovated to state-of-the-art educational standards at less cost than new construction.
That´s the case in Ambridge. The district´s own architect estimates that renovating the existing high school would cost $10 million less than building a new school.
Renovations are also more environmentally benign. "The No. 1 principle of green building design is to renovate and recycle existing buildings," says Paul Zeigler, director of building technology for the state Department of Environmental Protection. Addressing a statewide school construction conference recently, Zeigler said that early 20th century schools - with huge and plentiful windows, high ceilings and thick walls - are prime candidates to be retrofitted as energy-efficient buildings.
Ambridge Area School District voters have made clear what they want. Four candidates running on a platform to retain the current high school beat three pro-building incumbents by a 2-to-1 margin on both the Republican and Democratic tickets in the spring primary.
Yet the construction process moves forward. The Department of Education has statutory authority to hold a hearing on the need for any public school project, but according to Carle Dixon, head of its school facilities division, it has never called one.
The Rendell administration recently chastised school boards for not being responsive to voters and warned that new legislation may require referendums on school spending, whether school boards like it or not.
Now the administration has a chance to practice what it preaches by conducting a fact-finding hearing on whether Ambridge really needs a new high school. Such a hearing would not only affect Ambridge, but send a message statewide that spendthrift school boards will be called to account.
You can´t revitalize towns by throwing away their assets and spending them into insolvency.