There’s no time like the present to forge ahead with an estimated $100 million high school consolidation plan that some residents of the Wilkes-Barre Area School District dislike and which may be fraught with ifs.
The school board voted Monday night to negotiate a deal to lease the Times Leader building after a contractor buys it and renovates it. The proposed 20-year lease is estimated to cost district taxpayers between $13-$17 million.
Panzitta Enterprises, which proposed this solution, appears to have struck a good deal. After remodeling the building and leasing it to the district for a whopping 20 years, the district could then own it. The board has discussed the possibility of using the building for district offices when classroom space is no longer needed. Let’s hope that’s the case, after the board spends up to $17 million, barring any rent increases, to lease it.
Say what you will about the WBA school board; if nothing else, it’s decisive.
Last June, shortly after receiving a feasibility study by its “team” of four local architectural and engineering firms, the board majority voted to demolish Coughlin, close Meyers and consolidate both high schools at the Coughlin site. GAR students would stay put.
Then came the reality that Coughlin students would be displaced for a few years. No problem. The board voted to spend $2 million plus on temporary modular classrooms. Then, it voted for split sessions at the newly renovated Mackin Street Elementary School and crowed when the state approved that short-term plan. Some Coughlin parents got mad for considering that option, so it was back to the drawing board.
Then, John Panzitta, whose firm renovated the Mackin building, told the board, hey, I’ll buy the Times Leader building and let you lease it.
Director John Quinn, who made the motion, said the board should begin negotiations “immediately.” As of this writing, Quinn and the others may have already struck a deal with Panzitta. Time is of the essence when you’re committing the public to a $100 million high school project not everyone favors.
Some in the audience Monday night believed this is a done deal. Incredibly, this game-changing, alternative plan was not even on the agenda. Yet this board, which claims to be transparent, knew full well it would vote on this – under new business. Nothing new here. That’s how this board operates.
That BREAKING NEWS was right up there with a real surprise – Superintendent Bernard Prevuznak announced his retirement in August.
“It astounds me,” Wilkes-Barre attorney Kimberly Borland told the board, to include hiring unnamed coaches and crossing guards on its meeting agenda but not include negotiations for an estimated $17 million lease-purchase agreement.
After being warned by district Solicitor Ray Wendolowski he had five minutes to speak before Wendolowski raised his index finger, resident Bob Holden asked the board to place this proposed lease agreement on a public referendum.
That had about as much chance of passing as board member Shawn Walker’s motion, calling for an indefinite moratorium on the consolidation project “so we can get this right.” Walker was in Florida on business and attended the meeting via computer hookup.
Walker’s request to slow down was a side splitter. But no one was laughing. Director Christine Katsock was the only one who supported Walker’s motion. The two also voted against the consolidation project last June.
Explaining his support for entering into a lease-purchase agreement, Director Ned Evans said, “I see no other option for the Coughlin students. We can’t put them on Public Square.” Evans said it would cost the district millions to renovate the Times Leader building if it opted to buy it outright. And why do that when it can just pay someone else $17 million in rent for 20 years?
Quinn’s motion said if negotiations fail, or if the state Department of Education rejects any such agreement, the district can purchase the building directly or seize it through eminent domain.
Then there’s the matter of zoning. The newspaper building on North Main Street is not zoned for a school but, ironically enough, neither is the land Coughlin currently sits on. At a committee meeting which preceded the board meeting, district construction manager Gary Salijko said the district would submit a proposal for zoning variances with the city. A hearing on a zoning change could take place March 16.
The board was questioned whether it would conduct an environmental study on the building and if state reimbursement is available. There’s always tomorrow for the board to worry about that.
In a related matter, the board approved $90,600 in payments to its “team” of project professionals. The expenses were only listed under “New High School” from the “Capital Projects” fund. Another payment of $14,750 to TGL Engineering was listed under “Coughlin High School Demolition.”
With the Mackin school renovations, costs for studies and $67,000 for an application for state reimbursement, which may need to be revised since this project is still fluid, the WBA school district is already millions of dollars into preparing for this massive consolidation project.
The final tally remains to be seen. Keep your wallets open, taxpayers.
Betty Roccograndi, a Wyoming Valley resident, is an award-winning journalist and a freelance columnist. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Times leader.