WILKES-BARRE — With one member absent and three participating via telephone, the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board voted 8-0 to limit any tax increase for the 2020-21 school year to no more than a state-set maximum of 3.7%. The move came during a brief noon meeting Thursday more notable for the exchanges — both before and after the vote — between board critic Sam Troy, Superintendent Brian Costello and District Solicitor Ray Wendolowski.
Troy was the only audience member to speak at the sparsely attended meeting, first questioning if it was legal to have board member’s vote by phone, then questioning the legality of a non-public board gathering Wednesday for “informational” purposes involving an update on high school construction.
Wendolowski said case law has made it clear board members can participate by phone, and that boards can gather for informational purposes as long at no “deliberations” are held. While Troy argued deliberations had to be done during discussion of the $121 million high school consolidation project, Board Member Melissa Patla, who in 2017 in opposition to the project, insisted no deliberations were done at the Wednesday meeting.
Troy raised two old grievances: that the district did not fight a successful tax assessment appeal filed by the owners of the Boscov’s store in downtown Wilkes-Barre,and that the district gave the former Wilkes-Barre Township school building back to the township rather than sell it. He argued the two moves cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Wendolowski countered that he had looked into fighting the Boscov’s assessment reduction but that the requested reduction appeared to be reasonable and the district probably would have wasted thousands of dollars in a losing fight. He also said the district got the old school building during consolidation of school districts at no cost and that the township had been asking to have it given back for more than a decade before the district finally sold it to the township for $1.
The former school had been used for storage and limited office use before a collapse of part of the roof, and the district opted not to invest in repairs, selling it to the township.
At the start of his complaints, Troy made what has become a routine request he be allowed to speak for more than the five minutes allowed under board policy. He cited the fact that he had donated $1,500 for scholarships for two GAR Memorial Students. Board President Joe Caffrey thanked him for the donation but declined the request for extra time.
While exchanges with Troy often get testy during meetings, he stuck around afterwards and chatted at length with Wendolowski and Costello following adjournment, trading barbs and some laughs. Costello said Troy’s constant call for staff reductions shows he is “for consolidation,” while Wendolowski said Troy and others like him help keep the board and district honest.
“He has a good heart,” Costello said after Troy left.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish