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November 2, 2012

Photo Gallery, Story: New Castle may revive Lockley project

NEW CASTLE — New Castle school board members and administrators are expected to come to an understanding that could revive the Lockley school renovation/consolidation project at a workshop session next week.

Armed with information presented at last night’s special session, the school board will meet at 6 p.m. Monday.

The meeting will be a non-voting session. If the district decides to proceed with the project, that vote will most likely come at the board’s November meeting.

Last week, board members by a 5-4 vote rejected bids for a $22.9 million project to consolidate the district’s four elementary schools into one learning center.

Board members Dr. Marilyn Berkely, Anna Pascarella, Barbara Razzano, Mary Ann Tofel and David DiGiammarino voted against the project.

Voting to proceed were Stacey Fleo, Mark Kirkwood, Karen Humphrey and president Allen Joseph.

At last night’s session, financial experts Chris Bamber of Public Financial Management, Joseph Muscatello and John McShane of Boenning and Scattergood Inc., and bond counsel Patrick Healy of Cohen and Grigsby of Pittsburgh, explained the funding process.

If the district goes forward with the project, which is supported by federal and state tax money, zero percent financing and reimbursements for a portion of the project, the district will pay $18 million for its new building. If the district pulls out and does not build, it will cost in excess of $9 million to terminate bonds obtained to support the project. In addition, they said, these funds would not be available to the board if it rejects this project, then considers another plan.

After the meeting, district business administrator Joseph Ambrosini noted that the district has already spent $1.3 million and still has bills and contractual obligations associated with the project.

The board meeting room was filled with more than 50 people standing after chairs were filled. Many of those present were current and former teachers in the district who pleaded with board members to reconsider their vote.

Construction manager John Hayes, of Thomas and Williamson, asked board members what their vote had been — to terminate the project or to reject the bids.

Told the vote was to reject bids, Hayes noted that “that is done all of the time.” He said the board had not actually killed the project and if the district wanted, they would not even have to seek new bids. He said the district could contact bidders, make adjustments and still award the project to the lowest responsible bidder.

Some board members, concerned at the potential $9 million loss faced by the district if bonds are to be “unwound,” said they had not had this financial information before and asked why.

Superintendent George Gabriel said board members were sending mixed messages to the administration, noting that some of the five now opposed to the plan had supported it in the past.

Joseph said that opposition board members in the past had voted to pay bills associated with the project.

Some board members who voted against the project last week indicated a willingness to revisit the figures. Some spoke of reducing the scope of the project, thus lowering the cost, or reconsidering savings anticipated by closing three of the district’s four dilapidated elementary schools.

Tofel, who had voted no last week, asked to call a buildings and grounds committee meeting.

Gabriel advised “this is something for the whole board.”

Following the meeting, Gabriel, who submitted his resignation last week, which was accepted by the same 5-4 vote, said he still plans to retire on Jan. 31.

“I still have some fire in my belly,” he said. “I’d like to see the project through.”

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