School Board Plunging W-B Area Into Astronomical Debt
Would you ever build a brand new expensive home for your family on a contaminated lot requiring the intervention of a state environmental agency? What if another state department then informed you it was your responsibility to pay for major road alterations leading to your property? Undoubtedly, you’d be up in arms. OK then, why are most residents of the Wilkes-Barre Area School District sitting back and allowing as few as five school board members to go unchallenged as they aimlessly plunge the district — and you by extension — into astronomical debt surpassing $100 million, the expected total project cost for a new consolidated high school on a site which was “repeatedly disturbed by mining activities” and used as a “culm ash disposal site?” True to form, the board dropped the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation bombshell toward the end of its last meeting when it needed to vote on spending $143,000 to study the costs of mandated additions to the Cross Valley Expressway. This is how this board operates, springing last-minute surprises on the public including motions to consolidate the district’s sports teams and add GAR to the new school merger. The powers that be have even resorted to catching some directors off guard, expecting them to vote on weighty measures with little advance warning and virtually no debate. When it comes to our elected and appointed officials, we’re many times too trusting, too complacent. After all, we elected them to act in our best interest, right? You be the judge. Consider who have made these expensive and far-reaching decisions on your behalf. In 2015, then school board president Lou Elmy played a pivotal role in forwarding the plan to close two of the district’s three neighborhood high schools and consolidate them. A year later, he pleaded guilty to extortion amid charges he traded favors, for years, with county prison inmates he supervised in exchange for alcohol and cocaine. Those years coincided with his tenure on the school board. Incumbent director Ned Evans was charged with driving under the influence and later got caught finding humor in an Arizona minor sexually assaulted by his female teacher. Fellow director Denise Thomas goes on the attack on Facebook if anyone dares to question her authority. The present board majority is fine with constructing this massive high school on what’s known as “the Pagnotti site.” This decision has necessitated the state Department of Environmental Protection to be involved with capping the plot to prevent exposure to mine-related chemicals. The DEP’s website warns that “millions of structures in Pennsylvania are located on old abandoned underground coal and clay mines and they are all at risk from damage caused by mine subsidence.” Comforting, huh? Does the school board even know what may lie beneath the surface of this planned school location, what the risks may be to build there and if special costly insurance coverage will be needed to protect the district’s $100 million-plus investment? It’s their job to know and to be up front with those who will be stuck paying the bill. The handwriting was on the wall at GAR High School in July 2015. That’s when a steady stream of 60 teachers, coaches, students, former students and other concerned residents went to the podium begging the school board to slow down before embarking on this consequential school plan. The board seemed to be listening. Then after a short recess, the majority directors stunningly ignored the heartfelt pleas of those they represent and voted to build a new high school for Coughlin and Meyers students on the Coughlin site. This shameless disrespect could explain the public’s chronic indifference as the school directors forged ahead, squandering almost $5 million along the way because it never dawned on them they may not get zoning approval. They didn’t. Having botched that plan, they scrambled once again, deciding a mine-scarred, environmentally challenged plot in Plains Twp. was ideal for this extravagant school project. All the while the price keeps climbing. At its most recent meeting, this board continued to demonstrate its utter contempt and disdain for the public by holding its monthly meeting in a room so small an overflow crowd was forced to stand out in the hall. Thank board President Joseph Caffrey for that. The decision makers have yet to share with the public a cost estimate for rehabilitating the contaminated acreage. They haven’t revealed an estimate for busing students out of Wilkes-Barre to Plains Twp. What they have done is approve spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on plans for the Pagnotti site before even taking ownership of it. This board governs as if it knows it all. It dissed the findings of two task forces and refused free advice from out-of-state professionals knowledgeable in successful school renovations. The board has also shown little to no interest in studies that have concluded students flourish academically in neighborhood schools in comparison to consolidations. It has not convincingly made the case to the contrary. For years your school board has been playing fast and loose with taxpayers’ money as it muddles through plan after plan after plan, a boon only to the district’s “team” of advisors drawing up these blueprints, revisions and studies while the school board raises your taxes to the maximum allowed by law year after year. Just wait until you’re forced to chip in to pay off the district’s massive debt atop taxes to support a financially shaky Wilkes-Barre City. It’s time to begin demanding answers to how much this revised consolidation will really cost, how this latest plan will be financed, how taxpayers will be impacted and, most importantly, how district students will be better served, if indeed they will. Or you can do nothing and continue to give free rein to a handful of school directors and high-priced planners. Consolidation cheerleaders Superintendent Brian Costello and Solicitor Raymond Wendolowski don’t even live in the district which will bear the financial responsibility for this money-pit project. Their homes are safe from inevitable skyrocketing taxes. Yours may not be.