DePasquale finishes Review of Wilkes-Barre Area School District’s Consolidation Plan

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(WBRE/WYOU) — Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has completed his review of the Wilkes-Barre Area School District’s high school consolidation plan.

The review found tough decisions were made to generate cost savings with the intent to establish a solid fiscal foundation for the future.

“Based on the limited scope of review, my team found the Wilkes-Barre Area School District is working to create a safe learning environment for students, faculty and staff,” DePasquale said.

Pasquale’s team reviewed concerns related to the district’s plan to consolidate students from three high schools into one new building after receiving nearly 100 complaints.

The following observations are based on the interim review that started in August 2019:

  • District officials worked with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and, since 2002, conducted three feasibility studies which pointed to the increasingly dire condition of the district’s aging buildings.
  • Before the consolidation and construction project started, the district worked with financial adviser PFM to conduct a financial assessment which concluded it would cost $230 million to upgrade all existing buildings. The district’s construction and consolidation plan for the high school is estimated to cost $123 million.
  • PFM also projected in 2014 that without drastic cuts, the district would be facing a $36 million deficit in the 2018-19 school year. However, the district reduced spending by eliminating dozens of employees and curtailing some programs, resulting in the district ending the 2018-19 school year with a positive fund balance of more than $5 million.
  • Savings from district actions also helped establish a $7 million capital reserve fund in 2018-19 for ongoing building repairs and renovations. The district also created a 20-year facility maintenance master plan.
  • An initial plan that was projected to save money by consolidating students from two high schools into one building at the site of the Coughlin High School was denied approval by the zoning board. Preparing to present a plan to the zoning board required the district to invest approximately $2.5 million in design and construction plans which were adapted for use in the new high school currently under construction. Another $2.5 million was spent on asbestos remediation of the Coughlin High School that was necessary regardless of the district’s future plans.
  • Following the zoning board’s rejection, the district purchased a 77-acre former mining site, including mineral rights, for $4.25 million based on district-obtained comparable sale prices in the region.
  • A $123 million, 40-year bond was obtained for the land purchase and construction of the new high school.
  • The district’s long-term financial plan includes projected savings of more than $3 million from the high school consolidation.
  • The district worked with the state Department of Environmental Protection to complete land reclamation and site work required to build on a former mining site.

The Department of the Auditor General’s next regularly scheduled audit of the district is expected to begin in late 2021.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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