WILKES-BARRE — Wilkes-Barre Area School District Superintendent Brian Costello showed off upgrades to the Coughlin High School annex Wednesday, but the big news may have been that “several” buyers have expressed an interest in purchasing the shuttered and stripped original part of the high school next door.
Asked about the fate of the old building, cleared of asbestos in anticipation of moving students to a new building, Costello mentioned potential buyers have emerged.
Asked if the district would be selective in who could buy it — specifically in terms of a tax-free nonprofit or a for-profit that would pay property taxes — Costello said interest has been expressed by both.
He said the final decision on what happens will be made by the school board, but the goal is to be sure it doesn’t become a vacant building indefinitely.
The crowd was scant for the third and final “community meeting” this week, one at each high school, but Costello began the same way he did at GAR Memorial on Monday and Meyers on Tuesday, stressing he wanted to hold ongoing informal discussions with the public in various locations.
As he routinely does, he also defended the district against accusations of academic failure, pointing to $10 million in scholarships offered to the most recent graduating class, and to high results on state standardized algebra tests administered to eighth grade students that will not be part of the state’s accounting system until they reach 11th grade.
The state requires several high school Keystone Exams, that can be taken at the end of the course, which these days can be as early as eighth grade for algebra I. However, the results are not included in the accountability system until the student reaches 11th grade.
Costello noted that in January 2016 when the original Coughlin building closed and students were split between the newer annex and the renovated Mackin school, physical changes to the annex were deliberately done with the expectation of having students there only one year.
The goal at the time was to move them after a year or so and begin razing the annex and the original school. A new school was to be built on the same site, but the Wilkes-Barre City Zoning Hearing Board denied a needed variance, and rather than fight the ruling the district is looking at another site in Plains Township. Costello expects a new school, housing grades nine through 12 from Coughlin and Meyers, to be completed for the 2021-22 school year.
That means half the Coughlin students, about 450 this year, will take classes in the annex for another four years. Knowing that, Costello said, the district took steps over the summer to improve conditions.
The power supply had proven inadequate when the shift was made, primarily because of the high demand for recharging laptop computers and running things like smart white boards and other technology. Additional power was wired over to the annex from the main building area.
Heating and ventilation was also improved by adding ducts in several rooms to improve air flow.
Costello started the meeting in the cafeteria, where two classrooms were carved out this summer. He said officials realized they could provide lunch to all students with less cafeteria space. That move also allowed the district to eliminate a classroom that had been made from part of a locker room, which Costello said officials determined had proven “unacceptable.”
The new wiring means all the rooms have been getting full smart board set-ups with projectors suspended from the ceilings. In many rooms, wires still snaked from holes in the walls or floors and dangled along walls. Costello said they will all eventually be hidden, as has already happened in some rooms.
Costello also noted the art room converted into a biology lab is larger and better equipped than the set-up in the old building — in part because the power supply was insufficient in the old space to operate modern microscopes and other equipment. And he said the chemistry lab now houses both desk space for lessons and space for lab work, while the old set-up required students to switch rooms.
He also said plans call for more frequent gatherings of the students split between the two buildings. While it is still one high school, the two lower grades take classes at what was Mackin Elementary while the higher grades use the annex.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish