Speaking from the vantage of being the first and still only minority member of the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board, board Vice President Shawn Walker took offense with recent criticism of “segregation” in the high school consolidation plan, but also proposed a solution Monday that the board accepted: Giving students in grades 9 through 12 a chance to chose there district school.
Walker opened the meeting reading a statement in response to resident Gabby Richard’s comments at a Jan.29 public hearing on consolidation plans. Richards cited the high minority enrollment at GAR and said leaving those students out of the plans to consolidate Coughlin and Meyers high schools means “we are looking at, I’m just going to call it what it is, segregation.”
“Words are powerful,” Walker said Monday after conceding the comments had “bothered” him. “And because they are so powerful, we must be sure they are accurate.” Recounting his father’s lessons on black segregation in America, he said “The district is absolutely not segregating GAR students.”
“This isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of definition. By definition, segregation is the enforced separation of different racial groups … . Discrimination, by definition, is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age or sex. We are doing neither.”
He proposed that, once the new school is completed — estimated now to open in 2021 — students in grades 9 through 12 make their own choice on attending that school or GAR. The board later approved a motion to have Superintendent Brian Costello draw up a plan for such a school choice program, which the board would vote on at some future meeting. The choice option would not be offered while Meyers and Coughlin remain separate schools.
Walker’s comments didn’t stop more criticism from the members of the public who spoke during the public comment section. District teacher Deborah Pride rejected the segregation charge, insisting “We treat everybody the same.” But others stood by the accusation.
“We need to have a discussion about race,” attorney Ruth Borland said. “There are racial issues here. I was pleased Gabby spoke out.”
Her husband attorney Kim Borland pointed out that he had started questioning the potential racial inequality of the plan in September of 2015, two months after the board voted to consolidate. Noting he has always argued against he consolidation, he said “to exclude the most disadvantaged students, that is unacceptable.”
Richards choked back tears at one point as she defended her previous comments. Citing criticism fired at her on social media — including apparently from board members, she said “I will not apologize for making us have this conversation.
“Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer. Modern day segregation in schools is real.
“I get emotional,” she said. “I will never stop talking for the kids. I won’t because it matters.”
After extensive back and forth, the board ran through a relatively light agenda that included approval of a new contract with the Secretaries & Associates Educational Support Personnel Association. The contract runs form July 1, 2016, when the last contract expired to June 30, 2022.
Costello said it gives annual raises of 25 cents an hour to aids and 50 cents an hour to secretaries, but that the union of about 175 people accepted no retro raises for the two years since the contract expired. He said overall the new contract costs about $600,000 in raises over six years. Had the terms of the old contract been extended for the same time frame, he said it would have cost about $1.1 million.