I would like to say this is a good story, but it is not. This story is the setup for the final death knell for a crumbling city. Wilkes-Barre was a coal mining city. It is right next to the Susquehanna River, the polluted part. It has always been a home to the working man. I was born here in 1974 in a hospital that closed. Anyone from the area would remember Mercy Hospital. My 2 kids and my wife were also born in this hospital. Wilkes-Barre was a good city. Over the years drugs, crime, corrupt politicians, corrupt judges and recession has decimated it. It is a shadow of its former self. The mayor is proud of the service jobs he “created”, while the city hemorrhages good jobs and people. We are the home of the Kids for Cash Scandal, the one where the judges put juveniles in a facility for a kickback and the home of the gas scandal. 67,000 gallons of gas went missing and not a soul was prosecuted.
I graduated from one of our 3 high schools, Meyers, my wife graduated from our rival, GAR. The other school in our area is Coughlin. Meyers and GAR are neighborhood schools and Coughlin is downtown serving the outskirts of our city and the northern part. There are about 42,000 people in Wilkes-Barre. The median income is $20,000 below the Pennsylvania average. We are such a poor area, every child gets a free lunch in school. The kids cafe and other programs for poor kids are packed full. My home is struggling.
The Wilkes-Barre Area School District serves an estimated 82,000 people. It has about 6,800 students, about 40% of which are minorities. We have 9 schools and 1 charter school. Elementary schools are: Kistler, Dodson, Heights, Dan Flood, and Solomon, which also has our only middle school. Bear Creek Community Charter School is a public charter, that just built a new school. Our high schools are Meyers, GAR, Coughlin. Mackin, a school that was closed, is being redone and will temporarily house Coughlin 9th and 10th graders, unsure of its later use. In 2007 we ranked 128 in the state in testing. In 2011 we dropped to 423 out of 501. Around 2006 Meyers was in danger of closing. The engineering firms deemed it unsafe. But a concerted effort by citizens saved it and money was thrown at it. It was a band aid. The Wilkes-Barre Area School Board has had corruption issues as well. Several years ago board members were caught accepting money for teaching positions, among other things. Very trustworthy group.
Fast forward to 2014. At some point the superintendent was informed of safety issues at Meyers. They quickly went to work to determine the extent of damage at all schools. It was deemed the Meyers and Coughlin were in bad shape. The district conducted a feasibility study. They also had 2 groups working to look for a solution. One was made up of teachers and school employees. The other of citizens. The 2 groups started their work, looking for new sites and ideas of how to build schools or school to better serve our kids. A couple weeks after the groups started meeting, the board informed them that they had a $100 million limit and could 9nlt choose from existing school properties. Essentially the groups had 2 properties to choose from. Coughlin is about 2.4 acres and Meyers is 7.7 acres. Coughlin is in downtown, Meyers is a bit out of the center city. The groups came up with 3 proposals.
1) keep all 3 schools. Rebuilding or renovating Meyers. Rebuilding Coughlin at its current site or at the Solomon site.
2)rebuild Coughlin and merge it’s students with Meyers.
3)rebuild Meyers and put Coughlin students there.
The feasibility study said Coughlin was shot. The estimated rebuild was between $65-$75 million. Meyer was estimated at at a rebuild cost of $75-85 million. Meyers renovations were estimated $85 million. The parapet was falling down and the steel knuckles above the windows were rusted and needed replacement. They said the floor shifted 12 inches, yet there were no cracks anywhere. It turns out the shift happened as it was being built. GAR needed $20 million worth of renovations. Tops for the 3 was $180 million. The cap was put at $180 million to avoid referendum for exceeding maximum tax allowance.
That is the general story. Here is where it goes a little awry. On June 8 there is a board meeting. The board decided to close Meyers, build at Coughlin and put an extension on Kistler to house 7th and 8th graders. They threw out every suggestion and came up with a whole new plan. They also were going to vote to submit Plancon funding on June 10. Plancon is Pennsylvania’s system for reimbursement for school building. On June 10 the board voted 7-2 in favor of this plan. This plan goes against all current literature and what all experts agree is best. It goes against what countless University studies determined was best for children. But here is where our story gets interesting.
Our district is going forward with this consolidation despite public outcry, statistics citing the utter failure of consolidation, the fact that they are flat broke and the fact that their plan changes daily. The are telling us they are broke but are paying for architects, engineers and the renovation of a school from their general fund. The money meant for the kids and teachers. About $11.5 million of the general fund has been spent on this. Throw on top of this the budget impasse in Pennsylvania and that the District must pay its charter school by November 1. Also that the $100 million bond is not guaranteed, in fact who would loan to anyone who is maxed out. This is a mess that will get worse.
A group of us, part of which is the Wilkes-Barre Area Save Our Schools, are trying to educate the public, while trying to to get the board to slow down. They are not listening to reason, in fact the board president got so angry at the last meeting the solicitor had to quiet him down. At the moment this board is drunk with power and does not believe the public has the right to question them. The board dismisses, makes fun of and general looks at anyone who doesn’t agree with them as the enemy. How can the public work with elected officials who view the public as the enemy? We have tried reason, pointing out the flaws, exposing untruths, forcing answers and trying to find their financial bottom line. They are reluctant to let the public see the books.
The last meeting was revealing. We found out quite a bit with a concerted effort by the public. People asked questions, people behind them asked follow up questions and any question not answered was asked again. The pressure is on. A process that should take 9-12 months is being shoved into a 6 month window. We are making process but it does not feel like it is enough. If we fail Wilkes-Barre fails. The exodus will continue and a once great city will fall into complete ruin.