Friday, July 11, 2014

Wilkes-Barre Board makes history

May 11. 2013 8:22PM
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The Wilkes-Barre Area School Board made real history Thursday night, and for a rare change, it was the good kind.

A board that seemed hopelessly mired in the good-old-boys, back-room deal making took a giant step into the 21st century when it unanimously agreed to have The Rev. Shawn Walker fill the seat left vacant after Robert Corcoran was ousted in abstentia.

Walker, an eloquent voice for the disadvantaged, is the first minority board member, ever. His appointment, which runs through November, brings the board’s black membership up from zero to 11 percent. In a district where 18 percent of students are black, this is a welcome change.

Admittedly, it should have happened years ago, and it should have happened through general elections, not by special vote of the board itself to fill a vacancy. But reform and progress tend to come at a glacial pace in Luzerne County’s second largest school district.

This is the board that, despite having three sitting board members plead guilty to federal corruption charges — including two related to teacher hiring practices — took more than two years to come up with it’s first written hiring policy, then promptly watered it down immediately before voting on it.

This is the district that was served so many subpoenas the feds could have opened a branch office in the administration building — in fact, agents took the extraordinary step of sitting through a full board meeting at one point.

When charges from then-solicitor Anthony Lupas jumped sixfold in three years, it took a Times Leader review to bring the matter to the board’s attention. A forensic audit commissioned by the board determined that Lupas submitted bills so sloppy it was impossible to verify the validity of his charges.

Even after all that, this board had members (including Corcoran) openly lobby to get relatives jobs or promotions in the district. But it sunk to a new low when Corcoran accepted a job in Germany and moved there, forsaking any physical residence in the district, yet still tried to stay on the board and participate via Skype.

Fortunately Corcoran opted to stop the fiasco, missing two meetings in a row and thus giving the board the legal right to remove him.

Into this morass steps Walker. He has proven his commitement to the community repeatedly, most recently as co-founder of the “Building Bridges” initiative designed to bring people together to find solutions to growing problems. He has also advocated in the past for greater minority representation in the district’s teaching staff, to better reflect the student body.

The often fractious board members deserves praise for setting aside differences and unanimously choosing Walker. Here is hoping he can avoid the entrenched politics and help a divided board steer a straight course toward true reform in coming months.

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