By Michael P. Buffer, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice
Bernard S. Prevuznak says he didn’t anticipate the challenges he would face when he took over as Wilkes-Barre Area School District superintendent four years ago and plans to “decompress a little bit” after retiring later this month.
Prevuznak, 58, called his four-year stint as superintendent “an interesting ride” and referred to “the overt stress that came with this specific position at this specific time.”
In 2014, building deterioration at Meyers and Coughlin high schools became a huge concern, and for the last 15 months, Prevuznak faced ongoing public opposition to a plan to merge Coughlin and Meyers with a new high school building at the Coughlin site in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
“What’s driving this train for the consolidated high school is the operational costs of this school district,” Prevuznak said. “We have to consolidate to keep this district afloat.”
In May, Prevuznak made another controversial call to save costs, and the school board agreed to cut library, art, industrial arts and family/consumer science programs. The district laid off 37 professional employees — about 6.5 percent of the employees represented by the teachers’ union.
“The furloughs were heart wrenching for me and the board, a heart-wrenching situation,” Prevuznak said. “These are people that I taught with for years. Remember, I was an art teacher. It’s been a tough, tough couple years.”
Prevuznak started working as a teacher for the school district in 1980. He was promoted to assistant principal at Coughlin in 1997, Coughlin principal in 2002 and deputy superintendent in 2003.
“Probably the most hurtful thing, which hurt my heart deeply, was emails and letters that I got from former students about the cutting of programs, the suspension and termination of programs,” Prevuznak said. “To get from former students, who stated in their letters, ‘How could you do this? You were a teacher. You were a principal.’ And my reply to them was — I offered to sit with any of them privately and discuss the state of affairs, the state of the union of this district. That bothered me, (the notion) that I had no feelings about the programs that were being cut.”
Prevuznak grew up in the Parsons section of Wilkes-Barre and graduated from Coughlin in 1976. His father, Bernard M. Prevuznak, was a special education teacher at Coughlin and the old Plains Memorial Junior High School.
“One year, we taught across the hall from each other at Plains,” Prevuznak said. “It was a great thrill teaching with him. I learned a lot from him. He was a good teacher.”
His father died in September 2013, a few days after the school approved a three-year contract for his son to become superintendent. Prevuznak started serving as acting superintendent in July 2012.
“He did a good job,” school board member John Quinn said. “He had to deal with ungodly circumstances. He was hit with everything from A to Z.”
Quinn was Prevuznak’s basketball coach at Coughlin and a Coughlin teacher when Prevuznak was an administrator there. Prevuznak also was an assistant basketball coach for Quinn.
“He took everything personally,” Quinn said of the criticism directed at Prevuznak over the past year.
Prevuznak said superintendents from other area school districts often called him to provide support.
“They would call me constantly and say, Bernie, how are you dealing with this? How are you? Take a breath, relax a little bit, Bern,” Prevuznak said. “I am trying not to sound like a martyr, but they would say, ‘I can’t imagine what you are going through. You got schools that are crumbling, citizens groups that are constantly showing up at board meetings, voicing their concerns.’”
He said he has no career plans after his retirement begins Aug. 31 and may eventually find work teaching or consulting. He lives in Plains Township with his wife, Sandra.
“My plans for the future, to try to get healthy again because I was always involved with trying to get to the gym, exercise, physical activities, which came to a screeching halt four years ago,” Prevuznak said. “The other thing is to spend more time with family and friends and to relax and to try to find some peace. I’m pretty spiritual. I will try to find some peace that way. I just need some time because of the last few years. I need to decompress a little bit, enjoy life more. It’s been rough for me.”
Quinn said he has a tough time seeing Prevuznak relax, noting he’s a workaholic who didn’t take vacations and often worked on holidays and weekends. Prevuznak said he took his first vacation as superintendent last month.
“I will miss him,” Quinn said. “It was time. I am glad for him. He is leaving with his health.”
Prevuznak announced in February he would retire when his contract expires Aug. 31. His current annual salary is $148,526.
In June, the school appointed Director of Curriculum and Instruction Brian Costello as superintendent. Costello, 42, has a five-year contract that starts Sept. 1, and his annual salary will be $148,000.
“He is going to be a fantastic leader,” Prevuznak said. “I really believe the last four years have been transitional for this district, and I truly believe he is the right choice to lead this district into the future. It’s a difficult road ahead, but I think he is very much up to the challenge.”
A few regrets
Prevuznak said he has some regrets. He said he wanted to focus on academics, help the large and growing student population from low-income families and start new programs that other urban districts have, such as a new program to help parents with parenting skills.
“And that never occurred. I think it would have helped our test scores. I got caught up in buildings, and design teams and finances,” Prevuznak said. “It seemed like every day there was an issue. You had buildings falling down. You had finances, people coming to me saying we’re going to be broke. You had personnel issues, Stahl and GAR.”
Earlier this year, the district suspended and fired five GAR Junior Senior High School teachers for violating a policy on alcohol consumption while working as chaperons at a school dance.
The district suspended Stephen Stahl as Coughlin wrestling coach and dean of students after learning of his pending arrest in 2014 and fired him a year later after he was convicted of having sex with a student when he was a Coughlin teacher in 2004.
Prevuznak said he wished he did a better job explaining to the public the district’s financial problems and needs.
“I would have kept a better look at our finances from day one,” he added. “People believe we can maintain three schools. It can’t happen. The tax base has dwindled. There is no evidence that we can keep these three schools going.”
The plan to merge Coughlin and Meyers won’t affect the district’s other high school — GAR in the Heights section of the city — but officials have acknowledged the new high school at the Coughlin site could eventually be expanded as a district-wide high school.
“What I am being told financially is we can’t afford to fix these schools. I enjoyed teaching in those buildings,” Prevuznak said. “I am proud of being a Coughlin graduate. I’m also very proud of where we are going as a district and that is a consolidated high school. I want to see our kids have opportunities that other kids from other districts have. I have seen other districts with modern state-of-the-art facilities.”
The cost of the new high school is projected at $82 million. The estimated cost to renovate both Coughlin, which opened in 1911, and Meyers, which opened in South Wilkes-Barre in 1930, exceeds $180 million.
“I am looking forward to the state-of-the-art building that’s being built,” Prevuznak said. “I can’t wait to see it. Yeah, Coughlin will always hold a place in my heart and my soul. It was a great part of my past. Now it’s the future, and our kids deserve a great future with this new state-of-the-art building.”