By: Mark Guydish, Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE —The Wilkes-Barre Area School Board has released new renderings of the proposed consolidated high school to be built where Coughlin now stands, with board members and district officials voicing conviction most residents will welcome the change.
“The majority of people I speak to, they are for this,” Board Vice President Denise Thomas said. “Their number one quote is ‘it’s about time’.”
Since the moment the decision was made last June to consolidate Meyers and Coughlin high schools in a new building, the board has faced regular and sometimes withering criticism.
Several board members, district officials and representatives from the firms handling the project have increasingly worked to turn the focus to what they see as positives.
“I believe that once we move forward, there will be an excitement about this project,” the district’s curriculum director and next superintendent Brian Costello said with the release of the new drawings.
Along with being across the street from the Wilkes-Barre police station — potentially improving security — the downtown location is close to several colleges and many businesses, Costello noted.
“We can strengthen our relationships with the colleges, we can build more partnerships among the different agencies and businesses,” Costello said.
Noting that he attended Temple University in the heart of Philadelphia, he added “At Temple we believe the city is our campus. I believe taking that philosophy and putting it in this situation, where our students get every opportunity to succeed within the city, is a great thing, not only for the students but for the downtown.”
Conceding that the trend in recent years has been to build schools and even whole elementary/high school campuses in more open spaces, Kyle Kinsman of WKL Architecture noted the district is heavily urban and lacks such an option.
“We don’t have farm fields where we can put a new high school. Most of our available land is former industrial land,” Kinsman said. That means most sites require some sort of remediation and/or special foundation work that can cost millions before building construction begins.
“We have to look for a site where we don’t bury $10 million underground,” Kinsman said, noting the Coughlin location has no such costly problems. “That money can go into things that are about education, and not about specialized foundations that go unseen.”
The drawings show a 4-story building covering all the district property from where the gymnasium is now to Union Street. The facade is a mix of brick, glass and metal sheeting. The main entrance leads to a sweeping stairway, with the cafeteria on the right that includes a mezzanine.
Kinsman rejected arguments that the school will be “crammed” because of the limited acreage of the site. “The average benchmark for a high school is 175 square feet per student, and this is at 175.4.”
Patrick Endler of Borton-Lawson also pointed out the square footage would be about the same regardless of where the school is built.
“Given everything you’ve heard about the finances of the district, it doesn’t matter where the building goes,” Endler said “You can’t make it any bigger. That’s what they can afford, and that’s what the curriculum plans call for.”
Costello also countered the recurring argument that the district is building a school without having a master plan. He pointed out that the School Board approved a “Pathway to the future” to bring the district to fiscal solvency, that a plan for short and long-term renovations and maintenance is being devised, and that substantial changes have been made in curriculum.
“When all three come together, we believe we can truly provide a situation here where every student can succeed.”