PLAINS TWP. — After three hours of public comment and extensive give and take between the audience and board members, the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board voted to do further site analysis for a possible new high school on land near the Solomon/Plains Educational Complex.
The vote approved two steps. First, bore holes will be drilled to comply with state requirements to determine if the property is safe in light of past mining below the land. The work will be done by Geo-Science Engineering Co. at an estimated cost of $53,988. The company will also check to see if any utility lines run under the ground at an estimated cost of $4,500.
If the land — also known as the Plains Township Pagnotti site — meets state requirements, a “phase II environmental study and risk assessment” would be done at a combined estimated cost up to $116,250. Phase I was done as part of an earlier review of the same land.
The district had included the same property in a review of several possible sites for the consolidated high school before deciding to build a new school where Coughlin High stands. But that idea was blocked when the Wilkes-Barre zoning board denied a request for a needed variance.
Christine Katsock and Shawn Walker voted no in a 7-2 approval of the motion last night.
The board heard extensive pleas to hold off on the vote, which is the next move in a plan approved in 2014 to consolidate grades 9-12 of Coughlin and Meyers high schools in a new building.
Speaking on behalf of Save Our Schools — an organization formed after the consolidation vote with the aim of preserving a three high school system — attorney Kimberly Borland offered alternatives to consolidation. All of them called for a smaller “right-sized” school to be built near the Plains/Solomon complex and repairing Meyers and GAR high schools over time.
Borland suggested that, during construction, Coughlin High students could be split between the refurbished Mackin building — where grades nine and 10 currently attend — and the rest of the students handled by one of five options: Use excess capacity at Meyers and GAR; allow Coughlin students to attend Meyers or GAR at their choice; use the former Bear Creek School building; use the former Plains High School which currently houses an alternative learning center; or use the Times Leader building, which has zoning approval to be used as a school.
Borland estimated the smaller new school would cost about $43 million while saving about $150 million in other planned construction and expansions.
Sam Troy, who has announced a write-in campaign for a board seat in the primary this month, railed against the board’s spending, contending the construction project will never be done because property owners will flee the area due to escalating property taxes.
Dr. Mark Schiowitz argued that a high estimate for repairs to Meyers — including $26 million in seismic bracing that the district’s design team has said would be required — is wrong. He said he talked to an expert who determined the required bracing could be done for a few million dollars.
Attorney Joe Borland asked how many board members toured the sites under consideration for the new school. After learning that most did not, he urged them to delay a vote until they personally visited the sites. “I’ll give you rides,” he offered.
Parent Bob Holden agreed something has to be done, but asked how the board can be sure it’s doing the right thing. “What happens if we’re wrong?” he asked.
Noting that board member John Quinn had said a big expense for the district is rapidly rising pension payments — set by a state agency — Tracey Hughes pointed out that four board members are receiving pensions as retired district employees.
After public comment, board member Joe Caffrey — who has helped spearhead the review process that led to the consolidation plan — cited reports done in 2002 and 2007 that recommended school closings and renovations.
“The idea that we should continue to postpone when it’s been 15 years,” Caffrey said, “I just can’t reconcile that anymore.”