Two points: 1.) It is a good thing that the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board voted, finally, to include GAR Memorial in plans to consolidate the district’s high schools; 2.) Point one doesn’t negate the validity in calls to save all three “neighborhood” schools.
Those two points conceded, if you experienced whiplash after Tuesday’s school board meeting, you’re not alone. This board needs to stop playing pinball with such weighty decisions. A brief history demonstrates the point.
In 2014, the board authorized a feasibility study. Committees were formed, with any solution on the table. In 2015, the idea of merging all three schools was nixed as too costly. The board voted to merge Coughlin and Meyers into a new school at the Coughlin site. Two Coughlin grades were moved to a renovated elementary school. Half of Coughlin was shut and gutted. Plans were approved to buy and renovate a neighboring building to house the other two grades while a new school was built.
The Wilkes-Barre Zoning Hearing Board denied a variance needed to build on the Coughlin site. The school board decided to build in Plains Township. There was talk of converting part of Meyers High School into a performing arts magnet school, and of building a second athletic stadium at the Solomon/Plains education complex. Those plans withered with the added expense of buying land for the new high school.
The school board took deserved flak for excluding GAR from it all. Superintendent Brian Costello announced plans to give GAR students the choice of attending the new high school. He also announced plans to put the performing arts program in GAR.
On Tuesday, Shawn Walker became the O. Henry of the school board with a surprise ending to the monthly meeting. He moved to include GAR in the merger. The board voted 6-3 in favor, and the only reason the three gave for voting no was that the motion was utterly unexpected.
Enough, already. At this point, board members can hardly be surprised when critics contend they are making it up as they go along.
The arguments against such criticism has merit, the board has debated these moves regularly in public, and has posted many related documents on the district website. And to be fair, some of this topsy-turvy ride is not of the board’s making. The three-school merger arguably wasn’t an option at the confined Coughlin site, the board had a reasonable expectation that a variance would be granted to build a school where one already stood for a century, and the finance picture didn’t become clear until the state confirmed merger of all three wouldn’t jeopardize reimbursement money for the project.
Also to be fair, Walker has always said he prefers to keep three schools or merge three schools; his motion was consistent with that. That said, at the very least such a monumental motion should have been on the agenda, not tossed out under the unlimited umbrella of “new business.”
When you plan to build a big school expected to cost taxpayers something in the vicinity of $100 million, you need to set a course, explain it and stick with it.
That clearly has not been happening up to now. It has to happen moving forward.