Say what you will about Wilkes-Barre Area School District Superintendent Brian Costello, he just did something that appears unprecedented for a man in his post, in any local district. And he’s promised to keep doing it.
On three consecutive evenings, Costello hosted three separate “community meetings,” one at each of the district’s three trouble-plagued high schools. He insisted he wanted an open discussion with no limits on questions, and overall he delivered. He followed rounds of Q&A with tours of the school where he highlighted strengths and weaknesses, both structural and academic
If people had questions afterward, he stayed and talked. He gave out his email address ([email protected]), though that has always been available on the district website (http://www.wbasd.k12.pa.us). He promised to set up some sort of discussion board on the website to continue the conversations, and said he wants to hold more such meetings.
For a lot of critics, and for most anyone following the saga of planned high school consolidation, this all may be simply too late. For the last few years, complaints centered on a lack of transparency, a failure to give the public sufficient input, and a failure to convince taxpayers the decisions being made are the right ones for the money being spent.
A project that will almost certainly exceed $100 million in cost clearly deserves some serious public debate. It became more important when the original plan to build the new school where Coughlin stands was denied a needed zoning variance. If the new school is built in Plains Township as currently proposed, Wilkes-Barre will lose two venerable schools at one time.
So, yeah, it’s time to talk. And not just by letting members of the public speak up for five minutes at board meetings. Public frustration was justified in the early days of the project, when then-school board president Louis Elmy would willfully ignore questions and mercilessly gavel a person into silence. Elmy ended up in jail for charges unrelated to his role in the district, but his departure from the board prior to that was a welcome change.
His successors in the president’s chair — Joe Caffrey and Denise Thomas — have been considerably more liberal in allowing time for public discussion at board meetings. But Costello’s community meetings afforded a different opportunity, not only to question him during the initial discussions, but to ask about things seen on the tours.
Those who disagree with the consolidation plan — who believe renovation estimates for the existing schools have been inflated, or believe the loss of three community schools will be bad for students and residents — almost certainly were not won over.
But there has always been something missing since the board first voted to conduct a feasibility study and determine the fates of GAR Memorial, Meyers and Coughlin: sufficient effort to get stakeholder buy-in.
Costello’s community meetings felt like a shift in policy intended to do just that.