Here’s the challenge to the newly elected members of the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board, plus the woman or man potentially appointed tonight to fill an unexpired term: Dramatically change this district.
Bring reforms to the board — whose members have yet to fully deal with the stench of corruption perpetrated by certain prior school directors — and tackle the tough decisions regarding facilities and faculty that others have so far merely danced around and delayed.
For starters, openly admit this district has troubles. After the federal corruption crackdown of 2009 had exposed bribe-passing within the board’s ranks, some remaining school directors insinuated that the district’s largest hurdle was a publicity problem. Seemingly like ostriches, they plunged their heads deep and hoped the storm would pass. Folks, your problem isn’t bad press. It’s bad behavior.
This school district’s reputation — and, by extension, its performance — won’t improve until someone sparks a shakeup. Luzerne County voters brought sweeping change to a corrupted government, replacing the former setup with home rule. Likewise, the corrupted Luzerne County Court system was compelled to undergo an overhaul to its personnel and protocols.
Meanwhile, Wilkes-Barre Area School Board’s majority did almost nothing to alter the status quo. It dragged its feet on adopting a written teacher hiring policy — apparently the first in the school district’s history. Then it immediately began to water down that policy.
It belatedly recognized it had no written contract with its then-solicitor, whose bills had increased sixfold over three years. (Oops.)
Its missteps in recent years seemingly outnumber the flubs of any “Dancing with the Stars” dud. Yet it kept shuffling from poor decision to pathetic one.
The newest version of the nine-person board, which begins calling the shots in December, can adopt a higher standard of ethics, provide students with memorable role models and signal to the wider public a shift in operations by establishing priorities such as these:
• Adopt a no-nepotism stance for hiring teachers and other staffers, and forbid any undue influence by board members on the selection of candidates to be interviewed. If board members improperly contact an administrator on a hiring-related matter, there should be a process for reporting and, if substantiated, publicly censuring that board member.
• Create a consolidation plan. Maintaining three high schools in the city is unsustainable for taxpayers, and everyone from the superintendent to the person who sweeps the gym floor knows it.
• Ensure teachers have the right technology for today’s classrooms. And then make sure they know how to use it.
• Seek out minority candidates to become teachers, finally injecting some needed diversity into the district’s otherwise lily-white ranks. Fifteen years ago the state Department of Education warned the district about its failure in this matter. Yet of 500-plus teachers in the classrooms, the last we knew, only a handful are non-white.
• Provide a safe haven for learning by aggressively confronting issues related to youth violence — gang activity, for example — and connecting students with the social services they and their families need.
This downtrodden district desperately needs strong leadership to guide it in a new and better direction.
Several of you admirably sought the job of school director. A few of you got the job.
Now do it.