PLAINS TWP. — The Wilkes-Barre Area School Board voted 6-3 Tuesday to consolidate all three high schools, modifying its original and oft-criticized 2015 plan to merge Coughlin and Meyers but leaving out GAR Memorial.
At the end of a two-hour meeting that saw enough twists to fill a novel, Shawn Walker topped them all by moving to include GAR in the new school, noting the state had confirmed such a move could be eligible for reimbursement money.
Walker repeated his stance since that first vote: He wanted to see all three high schools saved, or all three consolidated.
Ned Evans, who has adamantly pushed for consolidation of all three schools, called it “a wonderful night in Wilkes-Barre Area” before voting yes. Dino Galella, Melissa Patla and James Geiger voted no, though all three said they were surprised by the motion and didn’t know enough about the new proposal. Board President Joe Caffrey said the issue had been brought up in an email from Superintendent Brian Costello in late June. Caffrey voted yes.
The original plan was to consolidate grades 9-12 at Coughlin and Meyers into a new school on the site where Coughlin now stands, but that effort died when the Wilkes-Barre City Zoning Hearing Board denied a required variance. The district has since settled on a Plains Township site that is much larger — about 88 acres compared to fewer than 4 at the Coughlin site.
After the meeting, district Solicitor Ray Wendolowski said that change opened the door for a three-school merger. Plans for the Coughlin site never included room for GAR students because the lot was too small (though the district also planned to purchase the neighboring Times Leader building, since sold to King’s College).
The Plains site offered ample room to expand the design, and state law allowed revised plans to include possible expansion by 20 percent without losing reimbursement money. The board decided to add that space in new plans, Wendolowski said.
A frequent criticism of the consolidation plan from the start has been the neglect of GAR, and the board had been looking to devise a system that would give GAR students the option to attend the new school. Walker took it a step further and brought all those students into the new building.
Evans, Thomas asked to quit
The surprise decision on GAR came after a string of high-profile comments and board votes:
• Several audience members took board members Denise Thomas and Ned Evans to task, urging them to resign after postings on social media. Evans posted a Facebook comment deemed inappropriate regarding an Arizona teacher having sex with a student. Meanwhile, someone posted emails allegedly written by Thomas when she worked in the district that appeared to mock minority and special education students. Wendolowski said the original emails could not be retrieved because the server had been replaced, but a source has confirmed at least some of those emails were real.
Some audience members admonished the board for lacking policies regarding board use of email and social media. Wendolowski said state law would likely not allow a punitive policy, making any such effort “aspirational,” but Walker said he is working to draw up such a policy anyway. Superintendent Costello also said in response to requests by the Wilkes-Barre NAACP, the district will conduct a climate study using resources provided by Yale University.
• The board voted to do major work on the site for the new high school even though the purchase of the property has not been finalized: $783,815 to Stell Enterprises Inc. to grade the site, and $541,975 to Densification Inc. to do dynamic compaction. The compaction work is needed because much of the property was mined and back-filled with culm. Wendolowski said a letter of intent has been signed, making the work legal.
• Attorney Kim Borland said he had talked with a person from the state Department of Education and discovered the district was planning to apply for a grant that would go through the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority. Wendolowski explained it was in the early stages, and there had been nothing to bring to the board for approval. He said the district may get $1 million to buy clean fill for the site. However, the district cannot directly apply for it, so title would be briefly transferred to the redevelopment authority, which could apply for the money.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish