Voter apathy and laziness at its finest. Recent election in Wilkes-Barre brought 25% of registered voters out.

    This past Tuesday was election day in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Offices up for election were Mayor,  District Attorney,  School Board,  Controller and City Council.  I realize that off year elections have low turnouts but 25% is ridiculous. Approximately 42,000 people live in Wilkes-Barre. Our Mayoral election had about 5,000 votes. For Mayor there were 5,000 votes.  That is sad in a city that has been rocked by corruption over and over again.
 
          City Council had a change of 3 members, including the first Republican in over 30 years. He is a amazingly smart man,  who has fantastic ideas and genuinely cares about our city. We also elected a woman in her early to mid 20s and she is fantastic. She was born and raised here.  Went to college here and is beginning her political career here.  We are lucky to have both of them.

           District Attorney was between our incumbent and a defense attorney.  Our incumbent does not prosecute cases.  Their opinion is that they are there to run the office, determine who tries which case.  We have a glut of unsolved murders,  as well as a charge against a man running for magistrate who is accused of forging signatures on the petition. We had gas gate,  which was 67,000 gallons of gas that went missing and no one was prosecuted. As well as another corruption case with the city contracted towing company.  The incumbent spent $130,000 as opposed to $45,000 for the challenger.  Was it the money or the laziness of voters?

             Controller was between a newer face in local politics and a face that runs year after year.  The newcomer won.  It is believed he will do a good job. Our city needs it.  We are broke,  crime ridden and littered with corruption.  Of the registered voters,  Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1. Republicans have a difficult time running here.

       The School Board race had 4 incumbents who were on both the Republican and Democrat ticket.  3 of those 4 voted to merge our schools. The city is outraged by this,  yet they got reelected.  There was a write in campaign that started 5 weeks before the election and was run solely on Facebook. There was an 11th hour wrote in campaign started. They received about 4% of the vote.  Very good here.  56% of Democrats voted straight Dem and 40% of Republicans voted straight Republican.  Despite the clamor for change. People went the lazy way and voted straight instead of seeing who the candidates were.

        Mayor was interesting. The Democrat candidate was a former Chief of Police, current City Council member and part of the administration’s that helped create the city’s issues.  He filed campaign contribution paperwork with several large errors,  was in trouble for not putting the proper labels on signage and publicly supported one of the judges convicted in the Kids for Cash scandal. The Republican candidate had a taxis sue,  which he was making payments on and never missed a payment.  He also was said to not have leadership experience. Apparently the Mayoral cannot attract more then 5,000 votes.

          It is very disappointing to listen to people talk,  write the paper or Facebook walls about how the city needs a change. Yet when their opportunity to change it arrives,  then cannot leave their house for the 15 minutes it takes to vote. This people do not suffer from apathy,  they are lazy. They cannot make a change because they truly don’t want to or care to.  I do not think that we can change these folks.  We are doomed to the same old same old because of these people. We can only make a difference if we get 50% of the registered voters out to vote.  Will never happen.  The valley with a heart will soon need a transplant.

       

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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.

        

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.

School consolidation, bad for education and finances.

    I live in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  We have had 3 high schools in our area since at least the 1930s.  There were many more,  but they were consolidated into 3 schools.  E. L.  Meyers High School,  Coughlin High School and G.A.R. High School.  Meyers and GAR are 7-12 and Coughlin is 9-12. The graduating class in 2015 from Coughlin was 259, Meyers about 150 and GAR about 150. All the schools in our area are not meeting the grade testing wise.  Meyers and Coughlin have issues with the buildings that change day to day. Our school board recently decided to infuriating the public,  ignore the public and subvert the public by deciding to build one school.

       The board decided to consolidate Meyers and Coughlin into one school.  They had a choice of 2 locations.  1 was Meyers,  7.7 acres,  neighborhood school,  most of the school walked already and it wasn’t in a central location to create traffic problems.  2 was Coughlin,  2.4 acres,  downtown,  traffic problems,  crime and drug problems,  now have to bus both schools and the property with the higher value to sell.  The board said no more property would be bought but are already proposing to buy more. Yes,  they chose number 2. Then decided to add on to an existing school to put 7th and 8th graders in there.  They are building over the city pool.  The project is estimated to cost $100 million.  They company that did the feasibility study received the job with no bid.  Yes,  a $100 million job,  no bid,  to the first company.  When the people asked for this to be put on the referendum,  the board voted 5-4,  against the referendum.  A classless display of egotism.

           Why do I not want a consolidated school? There are several reasons.  First and foremost is the children. Consolidated schools,  with over 1000 students have been shown not to work.  Test scores are lower,  attendance drops,  less participation is school activities,  loss of the intimate parent teacher relationship and kids falling through the cracks. The housing prices next to this newly empty school will plummet 10 to 20%.  A pillar in that community will be gone,  the building will be left to fester like so many other empty schools across the United States and a place that had a large community involvement leaves a hole which was once filled.  Another issue with consolidation.  Lower income kids do not get the same level of education they get in smaller neighborhood schools.  In effect,  classism reigns supreme again. 

    Sadly our school board did not take any of these things into account.  In about a year they went about their study.  When informed that Governor Tom Wolf intended to put a moratorium into effect on Plancon,  the state school funding project,  our board rushed to a decision.  They presented the plan Monday and voted on it Wednesday.  That seem well thought out to you? When the board spoke,  all they talked about was money.  Education was not mentioned once.  They believe bussing more kids will save money,  haha.  They believe eliminating 32 positions will save $3.1 million a year,  haha.  They said only 50% of landowners in the city pay taxes.  I say look at how happy Utah is.  They consolidated and didn’t save any money.  In fact it cost more.

      The board cited soil condition under Meyers as a reason for building at Coughlin.  Yet they plan on adding to a school that  is about 500 yards away.  They claim that they are concerned with safety at Meyers,  yet  had a graduation ceremony there.  They want to make that building into a sports complex.  How is that safe? The football stadium that 4 schools use is there.  They still plan on using it.  How us that safe? Something seems a bit off.

         I have an idea.  I don’t know if it is the right or best idea but it is better then this mess.  Experts say 1000 kids or less is the optimum amount for our kids to learn and test well. Built a new,  smaller Meyers that meets all qualifications.  Build a new Coughlin on the site where the middle and elementary school is,  no more land purchases,  build it to accommodate the population. This way we have 3 campus style high schools.  All very close to 1 of the 5 elementary schools locally. Experts agree that this model is best.They also agree 7-12 is the best model. Why is money coming before our kids? Pennsylvanian ranks 49th in the country in state funding for education. It also has a horrible system for who gets money.  Wealthier districts seem to receive more. These are things Governor Wolf is trying to fix.  Let him fix it.  Let our kids not have to pay off a monstrosity that we will be trying to change in 15 years.  Listen to the people.