By Michael P. Buffer, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice
Wilkes-Barre Area School District officials are standing by the $113 million cost estimate to renovate Meyers High School and the decision to consolidate it and Coughlin High School at a new facility in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
“If there was any way to feasibly save these buildings, we would have done it,” solicitor Raymond Wendolowski said, noting the design professionals who work for the district have a deep appreciation of old architecture and buildings.
A group called Save Our Schools is touting an alternative plan to renovate Meyers, which opened in South Wilkes-Barre in 1930, and build a new Coughlin in Plains Township. Coughlin’s main building on North Washington Street dates back to 1909.
Wendolowski said the district’s four-firm design team would have endorsed the costlier option to renovate Meyers and Coughlin if “a Machiavellian perspective” was the driving force.
“These guys get paid on a contingency basis for the percentage of the construction cost,” Wendolowski said. “They would push through a $300 million option instead of $100 million because they make more. They’re not doing that because it doesn’t make financial sense. We can’t afford to do it. Sure there are old buildings out there that are worth fixing. We did it with Mackin.”
In 2014, officials discovered exterior deterioration at Meyers and Coughlin. The school board decided to spend more than $450,000 on a feasibility study of district building options and spend $8 million renovating the closed Mackin Elementary School as a backup location for Coughlin students.
The district hired four firms to conduct the feasibility study — Borton-Lawson, A+E Engineering, Williams Kinsman Lewis Architecture and Thomas Leonard Engineering — and the firms are now doing pre-construction and design work associated with the new high school and a two-grade addition at Kistler Elementary School.
The district has already spent more than $1.4 million on pre-construction and design work.
The cost of the new high school is projected at $82 million, and the cost of the Kistler addition is estimated at $22 million.
The district plans to close Meyers after the new high school is built at the current 3.7-acre Coughlin site. Construction would start after the demolition of Coughlin’s main building and annex, which is projected to cost $4.7 million.
The district hopes to finalize a lease to use the old Times Leader newspaper building — next to the Coughlin property along Butler Lane — so Coughlin can be demolished in the summer of 2017.
In January, the district closed Coughlin’s main building and moved the 11th and 12th grades into the annex and the ninth and 10th grades into Mackin. A lease for the Times Leader building would provide a new temporary location for Coughlin 11th and 12th grades at the start of the 2017-18 school year.
Panzitta Enterprises Inc. wants to buy the old newspaper building from Civitas Media and then lease space inside to the school district as a tenant. A 20-year lease with extensions would cost the district more than $13 million for the first 20 years, officials have said.
The Save Our Schools plan does not include using the Times Leader building or adding onto Kistler. The Kistler addition for grades 7 and 8 would be necessary when Meyers closes because Meyers is used for grades 7 through 12 and the consolidated high school would be for grades 9 through 12.
Meyers is across from Kistler on Old River Road in South Wilkes-Barre.
Save Our Schools critics have also questioned the estimate that renovating Meyers would cost $113 million.
Attorney Kim Borland has said it’s inflated because it includes costs from structural reinforcing for side-to-side shaking during an earthquake.
The cost of seismic reinforcing at Meyers would be more than $27 million, according to a design team report.
“To not reinforce that would be irresponsible on our part,” design team professional Thomas Leonard said, explaining why the district should not invest than $80 million “into a school that could collapse with the next minor earthquake we would have like we had in 2011.”
Leonard added he believes code officials would mandate seismic reinforcing if the district wanted to renovate Meyers.
School Board President Joe Caffrey said previous studies of Meyers also included costly renovation estimates. A 2007 study indicated a $79 million cost to renovate Meyers.
“Is everybody wrong about Meyers?” Caffrey asked.
GAR Junior Senior High School in the Heights section of the city will remain a facility for grades 7 through 12 for the time being under the current construction plan.
GAR opened in 1926 and is another aging facility that will require improvements. The district feasibility study includes options of spending up to $51.5 million on improvements and renovations at GAR.
Officials have acknowledged the new high school at the Coughlin site could eventually be a district-wide high school.
The district can expand the new high school by adding additional stories on top. The current plan is for a four story building with 351,000 square feet of space. It would accommodate up to 1,860 students. The current combined enrollment of Meyers and Coughlin is 1,550.
The district has not made any decisions on how to use the Times Leader building after the new high school opens. Three floors in that building provide 41,000 square feet, and the basement there consists of 18,000 square feet.
The district is also struggling with budget and financial problems, and the consolidation of Meyers and Coughlin would allow the elimination of 32 jobs and save $3.6 million in annual operational costs.
The Wilkes-Barre Zoning Hearing Board will have to approve the new high school, the Kistler addition and the Times Leader building renovations. Hearings on those plans are expected at the board’s Aug. 17 meeting.