Following a decade of no-response to my commentaries, many letters to the editor, appearances at board meetings, position papers and letters directly to all board members requesting replies or meetings, I submit this “protocol” for changes at Wilkes-Barre Area School District.
The need is to address a pathetic chain of events that has resulted in indictments for fraud, bribery, nepotism and cronyism, low student achievement, aging facilities and a mode of management-by-crisis. The school board seemingly has lost any semblance of credibility with parents and the taxpaying community. I challenge anyone to find a school district that produced the outcry prompted by the news media of Luzerne County reporting on the Wilkes Barre Area School District. It is a complete humiliation that affects our most treasured resource, our children.
I want to congratulate Superintendent-elect Bernard Prevuznak, but condolences might be more appropriate. It appears that he was able to get a $19,000 raise. There is no question that working for this board, coupled with the challenges he faces, he will earn every cent.
The elimination of the position of deputy superintendent is a major mistake considering all the issues mentioned above. Bernard, you would have better off accepting your present salary and demanding a deputy. You have a golden opportunity to be an agent of change extraordinaire due to your three-year contract.
My proposed protocol for change:
First and foremost, for this board to achieve any semblance of forward movement, organizing and implementing a plan for regaining credibility needs to be item one. Make an immediate public apology and pledge that behaviors will change.
Considering the depth of the problem(s) it is recommended that an external task force be established. Not an advisory committee, a “task force.” A task force is an assembled group of community leaders who are stakeholders trained to accomplish a specific task, to present findings and choices to the elected board for action. Preferably, the task force would be implemented by this sitting board to afford the newly reorganized board in December a foundation from which to move forward.
In any other district outside Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, candidate searches and other employment issues would not be a stand-alone item. Because of the deplorable fact that “it’s not what you know but who you know,” hiring practices are a stand-alone issue for this district.
Consider nepotism: We are upset that it takes place. Consider bribery: We deplore the practice that has sent school board members to federal penitentiaries. The news media and radio talk shows have reported this issue relentlessly. This single issue has been studied to death by this and previous boards. It is highly recommended that, due to the serious credibility issue here, the board establish a hiring policy that forbids the employment of board member’s relatives in the Wilkes-Barre Area School District. Now!
Another serious credibility issue that continues to raise its ugly head is contracts — or the lack of contracts — for services. Misuse of the term “emergency” repairs to bypass bidding requirements is only one problem. Professionals working in the district without written contract is another problem. Certification of teaching and support staff and possible use of “emergency certificates” need to be looked at as well.
Create a report, generated by administrators of school buildings, showing every certification and expiration date for every teacher and support staff worker. Teachers, administrators, support and staff not holding a valid certification should be given timelines to meet certification requirements.
A review of all vendors needs to be conducted to see that all contracts have been board-approved.
Be it the public or private sector, management-by-crisis without a master plan is very costly. In the ideal world, the curriculum goals drive facility needs. When Dallas School Board decided to build a new high school, curricular needs were established and the architects designed the facility to meet those curriculum goals. In the Wilkes-Barre Area School District, the facilities to some extent drive the curriculum. It is no one’s fault, the school buildings are old and need updating or need to be removed.
Don’t think for one minute that facilities don’t impact student achievement. Considering the size of the district, age of the buildings and the number of school buildings, a number of options exist, including consolidation, renovations, new construction or a combination. From the piecemeal studies that have been done internally and by architects, it is apparent that a cost of $100 million is not unrealistic in bringing the district to where it needs to be.
Legislation has established that a vote of the taxpaying public must approve this level of expenditure. As such, three factors will force the much-needed updates to be delayed for years down the road: board credibility, a failing economy and the missing long-range plan that would identify and validate need.
To analyze curriculum wants and needs, to establish the facilities needed to meet the curricular objectives, and to evaluate the present facilities and their adaptability, a massive study that leads to a master plan is in order. A master plan would lay out timelines for completion based on funding available and enrollment projections.
A study of this magnitude will exceed a million dollars; but we can’t afford not to do it. We just spent $3 million on a football stadium that might be torn down. We have spent millions upon millions on high schools that might be closed or torn down. The fact is we don’t know, and until we approach this in a business-like manner we will never know.
This bleak fiscal picture will change. The reality that school districts need to bring curriculum, equipment and facilities up to date will win out, and the combination of local, state, federal and private funding will surface. But be assured getting that money will be a competitive process, and districts with validated master studies in place will have the advantage.
Fairly new to Pennsylvania, major capital projects must be approved by a vote of the taxpayers. The credibility of the board and master plan identifying needs will be the catalyst to success.
Richard Holodick is a retired school administrator.