By Michael P. Buffer, Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice
WILKES-BARRE — The Wilkes-Barre Zoning Hearing Board on Wednesday approved requests that will allow the expansion of Kistler Elementary School in South Wilkes-Barre.
Kim Borland, an attorney active with a group known as Save Our Schools, suggested the zoning board force the Wilkes-Barre Area School District to conduct an impact analysis, noting the Kistler expansion will allow Meyers Junior/Senior High School to be closed.
Zoning board member Carl Naessig’s motion for an impact analysis died without a motion to second.
The board voted 2-1 for the school district’s requests. Two members recused themselves from votes due to potential conflicts of interest.
The district plans to move seventh and eighth grades at Meyers to Kistler and consolidate grades 9 through 12 at both Meyers and Coughlin high schools into a new facility in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
The zoning board approved a special exception to allow the Kistler addition in a residential district and a variance to increase the maximum building height in the R-1 district from 35 feet, 2.5 stories to 51 feet, 3 stories. The zoning board also approved a variance to reduce the minimum number of parking spaces from 304 to 199.
Proposals for the new high school and the conversion of the Times Leader newspaper building into a school building are expected to be on the zoning board agenda next month. The district wants to demolish Coughlin High School’s main building and annex and put the new high school on the 3.7-acre site, which is zoned for commercial use.
Coughlin’s main building and annex were grandfathered as exempt from zoning regulations because they were built prior to the commercial zoning designation.
Panzitta Enterprises Inc. has proposed renovating the Times Leader newspaper building, which is next to the Coughlin property and also in a commercial zone.
Panzitta wants to buy the old newspaper building from Civitas Media and then lease space inside to the school district as a tenant. A proposed 20-year lease with extensions would cost the district more than $13 million for the first 20 years, officials have said.
The Times Leader building would provide a new temporary location for Coughlin’s 11th and 12th grades at the start of the 2017-18 school year.
The new high school is projected to cost $82 million, and the Kistler project is projected at $22 million.
School district officials are standing by a $113 million cost estimate to renovate Meyers, but Save Our Schools claims it could cost just $77 million and claims a new Coughlin building in Plains Township could cost $40 million.
Meyers — located across from Kistler on Old River Road in South Wilkes-Barre — could close in about four years when the new consolidated high school opens.
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 the renovated Mackin Elementary School in the city’s East End.
During Wednesday’s hearing, board solicitor Charles McCormick often found himself acting as a referee, trying to limit the verbal jousting between Borland and school district solicitor Raymond Wendolowski.