Wilkes-Barre Area School Board Meeting, October 5, 2015.

       In a previous post I explained that Wilkes-Barre was in a fight for it schools.  Little did we know that the district was in a fight to remain solvent.  The district claims that they are facing a catastrophic financial issue.. It us nit the first time they said this,  in fact they have said it quite a bit.  The difference now,  they are bringing in the Pennsylvania Department of Education to go over their finances. In the next few weeks PDE will be arriving,  they will go through the districts finances layer by layer to help determine what can be done.  This is something the members of Wilkes-Barre Area Save Our Schools has been asking for.  Not exactly the PDE,  but an expert to come in and examine the finances.  It was a concession to the WBSOS.  The state budget impasse has not helped the district in any way,  shape or form. But it has opened doors to this consideration. It is a start.

            While the district is in financial distress,  they still plan to move forward with their $100 million plan to consolidate 2 of our city Schools in a horrible location.  When asked if the district should wait until PDE was finished to continue with the project,  the superintendent responded that PDE coming in has nothing to do with the project. Although the plan is still moving forward,  there have not been any submissions to Plancon for additional property purchase or plans for the public hearing.  Those are 2 important points.  The property purchase would add several million to the price tag and most likely remain unused after the new school was built.  The public hearing was rumored to be either in December or January.  Typically the public hearing is held 9 months to a year after the Plancon process was started. The rumors had it at 6 months.

           Coughlin,  which was rumored to be closed on November 1, will remain open until the end of the school year. The juniors and seniors will remain in the Annex,  newest part of Coughlin,  while 9th and 10th graders will attend Mackin.  This is important because it shows the district is pumping the breaking,  going a bit slower then originally scheduled. We have made progress there.  Important pie e of information to note.  The district will raise taxes to the max amount from now until 2022,  at that point we should see light at the end of the tunnel. Very expensive for the taxpayers. There is also no plan in the works for Meyers.  A board member said that they were looking for someone to partner with in the future.  At least 5 years or more in the future.  Will it still be standing? According to the architects and engineers,  it is in trouble.  The future for the Meyers building could be anything from a sports center to a community center.

           They are looking at possibly 5 administrators in the new consolidated school.  The typical salary of a principal is between $100,000 and $150,000. They are also looking at Dean of Students and Head Teachers.  This despite the engine behind this consolidation being finance.  The superintendent also said that he spoke with the head of the NAACP about possibility if a large portion of minorities remaining in an underperformed school, while other children attend a brand new school with all the bells and whistles.  He told the NAACP local president that finances are driving this.  I am not sure that defense will work if this finds its way into court. 

           All in all it was an informative meeting.  The brakes are being pumped,  at least for the time being.  It is not a victory for the public,  just a concession.  I admire the fact that the board was willing to bring in the PDE.  That is an important step.  I hope as we move forward the board and the people can find a way to work together more.  The concern here needs to be about our kids,  not just money.

        

Cowboys without Romo.

     I am a die hard Cowboys fan. I have loved this team through some lean times. I remember 1-15 and some heartbreaking playoff losses.  My favorite Cowboy ever was Tony Dorsett.  I was not a big Aikman fan nor any of the long line of Quarterbacks after him. I do not like Romo,  never have. That is not to say I do not think he is a good qb, he is.  I just don’t believe we can win the big one with him.

       Tony Romo offers intelligence,  accuracy,  a quick release and gets us into good plays. I don’t think he is a choke artist,  but he tries to do to much at times. He has excellent chemistry with Witten and Bryant.  The emergence of an excellent offensive line and running game last year made him a better qb. He can hit the big one and has carried a team that lacked a solid defense for a few years. We had a decent year or 2 but it has been a weakness. We need to get through the time he is hurt with a 6-4 record.

        Brandon Weeden is not a good qb. He has a good arm,  but not a good head.  It is going to be difficult to win with him. He is a dinker and dunker with zero confidence. He makes bone head plays and scares me every time he drops back to pass. We cannot win a game that the pressure is put on him.  We need a young qb to groom.

         As I am writing this Sean Lee left the game with a concussion. He is a great player but does not help us on the bench.  The Cowboys have to win with defense and running the ball. Pound the ball and play action shots down the field. They have to stop the run and get a pass rush. Help is coming.  Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory should be back for the Patriots game.  Rolando McClain should be back as well,  great for the overall defense. This is going to be a tough few weeks.

      Joseph Randle is going to get the chance to get the meat of the bone. Lance Dunbar needs to get the ball running more and Christine Michael needs to get on the field. Once the running game gets established it will open up longer passes.  Only if Weeden can be accurate enough. I am not confident in the team missing the players the Cowboys are.  They just need to hold it together. So do I.

Wilkes-Barre Area in a fight to save our schools.

        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.