There is little doubt that watching the sad deterioration of Wilkes-Barre Area School District’s high school buildings has become as excruciating as watching a train wreck in very slow motion.
Or maybe, more exactly, it is like watching a time-lapse video of paint peeling, of masonry crumbling, and of steel rusting.
Those who spoke at a school board meeting Thursday were right in questioning how a new problem at Memorial Stadium next to Meyers High School went undetected until right before football season started.
The issue with an overhead walkway — a hole in a metal beam heretofore hidden by masonry — was bad enough to move the first week of football season’s opener from a home game to an away event.
The discovery felt belated precisely because the district had already found similarly dangerous problems with the same walkway in a different location.
The walkway begins in the back of the school, hanging over the exit used for sports teams entering the field, and curves around the north side of the building toward Carey Avenue.
Last year, deterioration of beams on the side of the building prompted closing the driveway under the walkway. That driveway, often called the “tunnel” allows an ambulance to access the field. The closure made headlines when it took an ambulance crew 10 minutes to access the field from steps on the River Street side of the stadium to tend an injured athlete.
That problem has since been fixed so ambulances can again reach the field, but the point is obvious: The walkway hazards have been known a long time.
District officials routinely remind the public that the building is inspected regularly for further problems. Which only makes the question more pressing: How did this new problem with the same walkway go undetected for so long?
Superintendent Brian Costello gave a simple response: It wasn’t visible until recently. This is not unreasonable. The inspections are, by necessity, largely visual and limited to what can be seen on the surface. If the beam was deteriorating behind masonry — which seems to be a frequent discovery at Meyers — it could go undetected a long time.
This is why the district has been pulling pieces of masonry facades off buildings — most recently removing limestone panels at GAR — to check the structure underneath. Masonry on the walkway does not come off in large limestone panels to reveal what lies beneath, so such an internal inspection is far more problematic.
This doesn’t absolve the district of the failure to catch the new problem sooner. It seems clear, in hindsight, that the entire walkway substructure should have been inspected. At the very least, a protective shed over the needed exit below the walkway — the chosen solution — could have been installed earlier in the summer, knowing the state of the walkway. Indeed, it could have been installed when similar sheds were placed at various other school exits some time ago.
The discovery of problems has been hard to keep up with, but this one should have been foreseen.