While all the candidates point out there are issues that go beyond high school plans, there is no mistaking the elephant in the voting booth for Wilkes-Barre Area School District residents: Tuesday’s primary pits four incumbents staunchly supporting high school consolidation against five challengers who oppose it.
It could be, in a very practical sense, the referendum critics have called for since the board voted in 2015 to merge Meyers and Coughlin. That plan collapsed when a required zoning variance was denied, and the new plan emerged: Consolidate all three schools in Plains Township.
Incumbents Shawn Walker, John Quinn, James Susek and Mark Atherton echo the same talking points: The new site will be safe because potentially dangerous elements in the former coal mine site will be fully capped by paving or new topsoil, merging the schools — at a projected cost of $121 million — will save up to $3.5 million a year and offset a similar increase in annual debt payments, and students will have greater opportunity with more course and extracurricular activities.
There are five challengers with a very different argument: Bob Holden, Terry Schiowitz, Robin Shudak, Debra Orlando Formola and Beth Ann Owens-Harris. They are all opposed to the consolidation, arguing smaller schools are better for students and that the savings projected by the incumbents won’t materialize. Some stress elevated levels of arsenic and chromium in the soil mean the site will never be truly safe, while others argue it is too remote, increasing transportation costs and preventing any sense of school as a community center.
Here are some highlights for each candidate, from public comments or responses to questions sent to all. Full written responses are included in the online version of this story at timesleader.com:
John Quinn, on the board since 2011, taught and coached in the district. He always supported consolidation and said completing the new school is his top priority, in part because “The Coughlin High School kids have not really had a school atmosphere” since they were split into two buildings. “Once we join, the kids from all the schools are going to have the same opportunities,” Quinn said, noting some schools don’t offer AP courses because there are too few students interested in the taking certain courses.
Quinn touts changes he pushed hard for, including the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Academy housed at Meyers and a new reading program that helped boost test results. He sees concerns about the new school site as overblown considering the region’s history of redeveloping mine lands. “We live in the anthracite region, I know a lot about these things, I’m a historian.”
Also like the other incumbents, he expects once the new school is completed, Meyers will be converted into athletic facilities open to the public. “It would be good for the community.” And he said Mackin has multiple possibilities, including a STEM school, special education center, alleviating overcrowding in elementary buildings or serving as a magnet school focusing on a specific academic field, drawing students from other districts who would pay tuition to Wilkes-Barre Area.
Shawn Walker reluctantly supported consolidation early but embraces the current plan, citing similar reasons. A board member for almost six years and still the only minority member, he cites two decades serving the community, coaching youth sports and ministering as a reverend in a church that helped house the homeless and collect food for the poor.
Walker notes he helped craft a strong anti-nepotism hiring policy and set up a computerized maintenance system that “allows anyone to report an issue electronically. That issue goes to management and gets assigned to an employee, and we track that work to make sure it gets done.”
Noting he lives “four blocks away from Meyers,” he likes the idea of turning it into a sports facility “with maybe two or three multi-purpose fields.” He is passionate about the safety of the school site, having children who will attend it. “If there was an ounce of doubt that this site would be harmful to people I care about and love I would not build on this site. I don’t know how to say it more plainly than that.”
James Susek, a dentist, returned to the board in 2011. He had served previously. He also cites completion of the new school as a top priority, and expresses confidence that contractors will properly “cap” all the soil with the building itself, parking lots or several feet of fresh soil, making concerns about the elements in the soil moot.
Mark Atherton joined the board five months ago when he was chosen to complete the term of Dino Galella, who moved out of the district. He cited “safety of our students, teachers and all our employees” as his first priority, and focus “On academic growth financial stability and the building and transition of students and staff into their new school.”
A Wilkes-Barre native, he graduated from Meyers, Misericordia University and King’s College and has been a teacher and coach in the Crestwood School District for 25 years. He said consolidation will address multiple chronic issues: “Finances, facility and curriculum.”
Robin Shudak is a free-lance writer who stresses her time in the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency when backing her concerns about the school site’s safety.
Like the other challengers, she believes neighborhood schools and community involvement in schools are best for student success. She also noted the state Department of Education has appointed a hearing officer as a result of complaints filed by Attorney Kimberly Borland, and believes the project could be halted if PDE finds merit in that complaint, which raised a host of issues about the process the distinct used in meeting state requirements (District Solicitor Ray Wendolowski has said he is confident all requirements have been met). “If PDE denies part or all of this new construction, Wilkes-Barre Area will have again wasted taxpayer money.”
Like the other challengers, she agrees a new school should be built for the Coughlin students, but would prefer it be built on land the district already owns at the Solomon/Plains Memorial education complex. She and the others believe Meyers and GAR Memorial could be renovated at far lower costs than the district has claimed.
Shudak has also been reviewing DEP documents related to the new school site and warned work is already going over budget.
Bob Holden was the only candidate during a recent forum to leave the podium and step into the crowd to make a personal appeal to do more for disadvantaged students in the district. He wants to see the district “stop wasting money” and “stop intimidation,” and proposed “an ethics document signed by all board members.” He wants to drop Apollo Group, Inc. as the district construction manager.
Always against consolidation, Holden said he believes the district “is rushing this plan because of the election challenge,” and will put future board members “between a rock and a hard place” because the land has already been purchased for $4.2 million and the construction could be well underway by the end of the summer.
He worked at Inter Metro and McCarthy Tire before being injured.
Terry Schiowitz retired as a nurse anesthetist after 38 years, including teaching the skill. She cites studies she says clearly show smaller community schools are better for students. Her concerns about the safety of the new site run high, pointing to studies “noting asthma, attention deficit disorder, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal complaints and leg cramps were significantly increased in children living near coal ash.” The new site was used to dump coal ash from a co-generation plant, though district officials insist most of it was not where the school sits, and that it has been capped.
Beth Ann Owens-Harris worked as a school psychologist in the district for nine years, helping set up the district FACES program, short for Family And Community Enrichment Services, designed to help connect district students and their families with agencies and resources. She touts her work in the district as an asset that will help set a clear vision moving forward with family and community partnerships.
Owens-Harris has promised she could help the district save money with her experience in special education as well. And she repeatedly points more to the future, promising that even if the consolidated high school is inevitable by the time she might take a seat at the table “I will utilize my skills and experience to ensure that the consolidation offers the best opportunities academically and socially to our students.”
Debra Orlando Formola has been one of the harshest critics of environmental risks at the new site. She has also repeatedly voiced skepticism about the district’s finances and ability to pay for the new school. She has suggested the state should step in and review, or even take over, the project.