WILKES-BARRE — The Wilkes-Barre Area School Board offered unlimited time to the public at a meeting Thursday, and got a prickly earful lasting more than three hours.
The barrage began before the start of an informational meeting to update residents on a search for a new site for the proposed consolidated high school. The board first held a special meeting involving approval of bill payments, and granted the usual five minutes of speaking time to anyone in the public who signed up in advance.
Sam Troy, who said he is running for the board as a write-in candidate this May, blasted the push for a new school and insisted, as he has for years, that taxpayers can’t afford it. Bob Holden then made a frequent request: that meetings be held later in the day (this one started at 5 p.m.), and that the consolidation plan be put up for a vote via referendum.
After a break, the informational meeting started with solicitor Ray Wendolowski noting the board would not adhere to the five-minute policy and wanted to give everyone a chance to speak. It quickly evolved into a lengthy give-and-take among members of the small crowd, several board members, and some of the professionals hired by the board to work on the project.
When Leonard Cornish asked if it would be cheaper to build a new school where Meyers High stands, Wendolowski introduced what appeared to be a new reason for rejecting the Meyers site: City rules on parking spaces.
“Wilkes-Barre City requirements are such that there is no way possible to find 800 parking spaces to serve a new school there,” he said.
Attorney Kimberly Borland chided Wendolowski for the comment, noting “this is the first we’ve heard” of the parking space reasoning, saying the Meyers site was previously rejected because soft, shifting soil under the building would require costly site preparation.
Borland also criticized the board and Wendolowski for refusing to make the information presented Thursday public sooner.
Wendolowski conceded much of the slide show presentation Thursday had been shown to the school board March 28. Borland said he had filed a Right To Know request seeking that slide show, but the district had invoked a 30-day extension allowed by law in responding to such requests.
“Now I see them,” Borland said. “I don’t have them, but I see them.” He argued it made no sense to withhold the information from him only to release it at the meeting weeks later.
Barbara Wilson complained that the school, now projected to cost as much as $135 million without the addition of athletic fields or a stadium, will break the bank for older people like her paying ever-escalating property taxes.
Business Manager Thomas Telesz downplayed the long-term cost. He noted the district currently pays about $4 million annually in debt service, and that debt will be paid off in 2021-22. The school construction will add up to $9 million more in annual debt. That means once the old debt is repaid, the district will be paying about $5 million more than it currently is.
But, Telesz added, the consolidation is expected to save up to $3.5 million annually, “so it adds maybe $1 million, $1.5 million to the overall annual budget.”
Borland said the consolidation plans “reflect a political agenda.
“I think the board got stuck on an idea, I don’t think it was a good idea, and (the board) doesn’t want to back off of the idea.”
Despite spending extensive time with a microphone in his hand answering questions, District Superintendent Brian Costello told the crowd he appreciated the input and promised “to have more of this.”
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish