WILKES-BARRE — Even before the protesters crowded into the conference room, the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board was discussing the high school consolidation plan.
During a work session before the regular meeting in front of a nearly empty room that would be overflowing an hour later, Solicitor Ray Wendolowski explained a costly requirement for traffic improvements mandated by PennDOT.
It was just one highlight from a meeting that included the appointment of a board member’s son to acting special education supervisor; approval of new, five-year agreements with administrators and confidential secretaries; and an accusation by an attorney that the board was violating the state Sunshine Act.
The district had conducted a required traffic impact study, and PennDOT had come back with several requirements including some that had not been anticipated to alleviate the expected increase in traffic from a new proposed high school near Maffett and Main streets in Plains Township. Total cost just for added design work would be $143,600.
Wendolowski and Project Manager Paul Krzywicki of Apollo Group Inc. said PennDOT said the district must do the following: Expand entrances from Maffett and Main streets (work the district anticipated); put in a traffic signal at the intersection of Abbott Street and Main Street; widen the off- and on-ramps for the Cross Valley Expressway at River Street; and add a turning lane at the intersection of Courtright Avenue onto River Street.
Wendolowski said the district has questioned why some of those projects should be charged to the district, and is pushing for relief via reimbursement or cost-sharing from the state. Wendolowski said the changes on the expressway would benefit many other than the district because it is so heavily used, and in particular questioned why the Courtright improvement — a mile or so from the school site — even qualifies as a district expense. He noted Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, much closer to that intersection, has done extensive expansion without being tasked with any such burden.
When it came time to vote on authorizing another $143,600 for Williams Kinsman Lewis Architecture to draw up plans for the unanticipated traffic improvements, board members Shawn Walker and Melissa Patla voted no.
Superintendent Brian Costello began the regular meeting showing off new images of the planned Plains Township high school, including floor plans that showed a main entrance into a large hallway with two gyms on the left that could be made into one, and the auditorium on the right. Nurse, counseling and administrative offices would be at the front so people could enter those sections without gaining access to the rest of the school.
Plans call for four, two-story wings of classrooms on the right of the building, each with a separate entrance from a parking lot that will hold up to 1,800 cars. There is a separate room for wrestling practice, a section set aside for Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) classes, two large meeting classrooms and other specialty rooms.
‘Making an objection’
The agreement with the administrators, known as an “Act 93 agreement,” was designed to closely mirror the recently approved teacher contract, Costello said, including a two-year pay freeze in the five-year arrangement.
Among a flurry of appointments only a few days from the start of school was the appointment of James Geiger as Acting Special Education Supervisor. Board Member James Geiger abstained, and said afterward that the appointment was for his son.
State records list the younger James Geiger as having been with the district for 15 years as of 2017-18 with a salary of $101,256 as principal of Dodson Elementary. His new salary was not mentioned in the agenda, other than to note it will be in accordance with the Act 93 agreement.
And while the board got an earful from the public about a variety of issues, one stood out. Attorney Ruth Borland chastised the board for holding the meeting in a room that left a few people sitting on the floor and others standing in the lobby.
“I’m making an objection tonight that this meeting is in violation of the Sunshine Act because it did not accommodate citizens so they could hear what is going on and have input.” She closed with a challenge. “At the next meeting, all the board members should have to stand.”
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish