WILKES-BARRE — It’s almost an afterthought mentioned during construction updates at every Wilkes-Barre Area School Board meeting: expansion work planned for Kistler Elementary is “on hold pending appeal.”
Well, sort of. Technically, the bulk of the “appeal” — an effort to overturn the Wilkes-Barre zoning approval for the work — is settled, with a county judge saying the work can proceed pending two needed approvals.
But Solicitor Ray Wendolowski said those approvals — one from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the other from Wilkes-Barre — have not yet been sought. The problem: The cost of the proposed new high school must be firmed up before the district can be sure it can still afford the Kistler expansion.
The original plan approved by the board was to demolish Coughlin High School and build a new high school in the same spot to house grades 9 through 12 from Coughlin and Meyers. Students in grades 7 and 8 at Meyers were to be moved to the expanded Kistler building.
That plan called for expanding parking at Kistler into space that is now Miner Park, which flanks two sides of the school like a squat, fat “L.”
It’s a city park, thus the need for the city’s OK. It was built partly with HUD money, thus the need for federal approval.
The school board wants to keep borrowing for the projects at around $100 million. The business office and financial advisers have calculated that’s how much the district could comfortably pay back over the life of the bonds while still keeping tax hikes at or below state-imposed limits. Those limits vary from year to year for each district, but have generally stayed around 3 percent or less.
Building the new high school on land the district already owned meant no land acquisition costs, making the Kistler expansion possible under the self-imposed debt limit. That idea hit a roadblock when the Wilkes-Barre City Zoning Hearing Board denied a needed variance for the Coughlin site.
Since then, the board has been working toward purchasing about 80 acres in Plains Township for a consolidated high school, but land costs are still being negotiated. Wendolowski said the Kistler project is on hold until cost figures — and thus needed borrowing — are firmed up.
Asked what the district would do with grades 7 and 8 from Meyers if Kistler isn’t expanded, Wendolowski said only: “The board has other options.”