PLAINS TWP. — After more than two hours of discussion and public comment, the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board voted 6-3 Tuesday to consolidate all sports and sports-related extracurricular activities such as cheerleading. The move dominated a meeting that included approval of a preliminary budget with a 3.4 percent tax hike.
John Quinn, Dino Galella and Melissa Patla voted against the move that would prove historic for the Wyoming Valley sports scene.
While 10 district staff, most former or current coaches, spoke out strongly in favor of the move, Galella was disappointed many current coaches were not on the committee that made the recommendations. “Times change,” Galella said, “but I don’t.”
Quinn predicted the move would mean many students would not get to play sports they want to play, and noted that larger teams have not necessarily led to success in other districts that consolidated sports. He also said he would like to get more public input.
The evening started, perhaps demonstratively, with GAR Memorial High School student Alana Germano questioning why she can’t play lacrosse at Meyers. Superintendent Brian Costello explained there are PIAA regulations that make it difficult or even impossible for students from all three high schools to play on the same team.
Tracey Hughes gave the most scathing criticism of the process in bringing the decision to a vote, asking if all coaches and in particular student-athletes were asked for their input. She questioned the timing because the PIAA works in two-year cycles and the consolidation, set to take effect for the 2019-20 school year, would occur mid-cycle. Athletic Director Michael Namey said the PIAA has said it would help the district with the transition. But Hughes was unswayed, contending the details should have been released to the public before a vote.
“You guys are unbelievable. You have lied to your constituents.”
But more than half of those who spoke were either current or past coaches, athletic directors and other staff, and all supported the move, saying participation in many sports has declined so steeply they are at risk of disappearing in some or all of the three high schools.
“We used to compete with 60 kids. We have 30,” Coughlin High School football coach Ciro Cinti said. “It’s getting tougher every year.” He said the team often can’t put up full squads at practices to play against each other.
“The numbers don’t lie,” Meyers High School basketball coach Pat Toole said. “People say sometimes sports come in cycles. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a cycle, it’s a spiral downwards.”
“You have well over 100 years of coaching experience in this room,” Meyers track and field coach Bill White added, urging the board and audience to heed their opinions. “Some sports are on a death watch.”
Attorneys Kimberly and Ruth Borland did not question the consolidation so much as criticize the lack of information given beforehand. Both are coaches for the Meyers speech and debate team, and said they were confused if the move would impact that team and one at GAR. Costello said it would not, but Kim Borland said such details needed to be made public before the meeting. “Give us the information ahead of time, let us understand, at least, what’s going on.”
Namey said the move will be done with a “no-cut policy,” promising the district will devise ways to make sure all students who want to play a sport can participate. Some options would include multiple junior varsity, junior high or seventh- and eighth-grade teams.
Coughlin senior and captain of the girls soccer team Kallie O’Donnell said the question of getting cut should be a non-issue.
“Life is tough. You get cut from teams. It happens,” she said, adding that students may opt against trying out for one sport and try another that needs more participants.
The board officially approved a “monthly milestones” plan proposed by a 15-member transition committee that had reviewed the idea and recommended consolidation. The plan calls for multiple steps ranging from informing the PIAA and the Wyoming Valley Conference in May to drawing up bus schedules in July and meeting with booster clubs in August. In May 2019, detailed work on sign-ups and scheduling would get underway, with the consolidation completed for the fall of 2019.
Board Member Denise Thomas said she was firmly set against consolidation when the transition committee was formed, but became convinced it is necessary after hearing the low participation numbers in many sports. She cited Germano’s query at the start of the meeting, when the student said she and another couldn’t play the spring sports they wanted to.
“That’s two kids on the hill who really want to play lacrosse but were not allowed to,” Thomas said. “That’s a lost opportunity.
The consolidation debate took hours, but discussion on the new preliminary budget took minutes. Business Manager Thomas Telesz said the $121,750,000 spending plan includes a 3.4 percent property tax increase primarily because the state does not adequately fund the district. If given final approval — a vote that must be taken by June 30 — taxes would rise by $59.30 for those who own a house assessed at $100,000.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish