Meeting about new WB Area school turns to new charter school at Meyers

By Mark Guydish - [email protected]
Members of the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board listen to public input during a meeting Monday night. -
Wilkes-Barre Area superintendent Brian Costello answers a question during a meeting Monday night. -
Richard Holodick addresses the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board. -
Gabby Richards said work is underway to launch a charter school at Meyers High School during a Wilkes-Barre Area School Board meeting on Monday. - -

PLAINS TWP. — Coming to a Meyers High School near you: A new charter high school?

Monday’s meeting of the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board may have been intended to give the public a legally required chance to comment on proposed purchase of 80 acres in Plains Township for a new, consolidated high school — and the board certainly got an earful of criticism. But resident Gabby Richards injected a new factor into the debate when she announced work is underway to launch a charter school in response to district plans.

“We are actively pursuing an application to open a public, not-for-profit charter school at the Meyers High School site,” Richards said to a receptive crowd.

“If you are not going to give a quality education, we will do it,” she told the board. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, sometimes you have to bring your own chair. “

Richards has given impassioned speeches at recent meetings about the need to focus on new curriculum, staff and academic programs to sharply improve student learning in a district that has ranked low in state math and reading tests. She did so again prior to announcing the charter school pans, saying “For far too long our students were completely neglected by the decisions of this school board and by us, frankly, as voters for not holding them truly accountable.”

Richards said the paperwork was being pursued by Save Our Schools, an organization formed when the school board first voted to consolidate grades 9 through 12 from Meyers and Coughlin high schools into a new building. The meeting was called by the board to give the public a chance to comment on the current plan to purchase the Plains Township site for that school.

Richards was a bit redundant in calling it a “public” charter school. Charter schools by law are public schools, though free of many state restrictions. They receive state money earmarked for the district that would have taught the students who attend them.

Starting a charter at Meyers, at least initially, would require support by the district. Charter schools are granted a “charter” for operation by the school district in which they will sit, though the law does allow a rejection by a board to be appealed at the state level. Operating in the Meyers building itself would require buying or leasing the building from the district.

But the promise to put a charter school there would sustain a neighborhood school in south Wilkes-Barre, one of the fiercest criticisms from SOS of the consolidation plan. Even the initial consolidation plan eliminated Meyers as a high school, putting the new building where Coughlin now sits. That plan collapsed when the Wilkes-Barre City Zoning Hearing Board rejected the district’s request for a needed zoning variance, prompting the district to look to the new site.

Cost of the new site, bounded by Maffett Street, Main Street and the North Cross Valley Expressway, is still being negotiated, though paperwork filed by the state estimated it at $5 million. At the start of the meeting, members of the four companies hired by the district as the “design team” outlined work so far on the site, including environmental studies that got preliminary approval for a school by the state Department of Environmental Protection, and work that showed the site will need some special preparation because of deep mining, strip mining, and some industrial fill.

While the first two speakers, both involved for years in district athletics programs, supported the consolidation and the proposed site, most of the 17 people who spoke were critical of the choice.

Bob Evans, who began by joking “and no, I do not own the restaurant,” warned the board not to overbuild, and said if they were going to consolidate, they should make the new school big enough for GAR Memorial High School students as well.

Andita Parker Lloyd, second vice president of the Wilkes-Barre NAACP and longtime district teacher, criticized the lack of plans for GAR students in the consolidation. She warned the she will be watching what happens to GAR students and how district enrollment boundaries are redrawn.

Richards was more blunt. Noting GAR enrollment is mostly minorities — state data shows 65 percent enrollment either black or Hispanic — she said leaving those students out of a new school means “we are looking at — I’m just going to call it what it is — segregation.”

Others repeated past criticisms of the board, including spending millions on plans and work at the Coughlin site before having the zoning variance, and abandoning the neighborhood school idea that the three high school system creates.

“It is essential we knit together our schools with our families and neighborhoods,” Attorney Kim Borland said.

“The whole project should be stopped in it’s tracks,” longtime critic Sam Troy said, contending the district can’t afford it. “This school district is eventually going to go bankrupt.”

Members of the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board listen to public input during a meeting Monday night.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_wb_meet5_faa-1.jpgMembers of the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board listen to public input during a meeting Monday night.

Wilkes-Barre Area superintendent Brian Costello answers a question during a meeting Monday night.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_wb_meet4_faa-1.jpgWilkes-Barre Area superintendent Brian Costello answers a question during a meeting Monday night.

Richard Holodick addresses the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_wb_meet3_faa-1.jpgRichard Holodick addresses the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board.

Gabby Richards said work is underway to launch a charter school at Meyers High School during a Wilkes-Barre Area School Board meeting on Monday.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_wb_meet2_faa-1.jpgGabby Richards said work is underway to launch a charter school at Meyers High School during a Wilkes-Barre Area School Board meeting on Monday.

By Mark Guydish

[email protected]

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish