REFORM OR RESIGN.
For the nine Wilkes-Barre Area School Board members who oversee Luzerne County's most corruption-tainted school district, the options for saving face and recovering public confidence essentially have been narrowed to two.
Either reform the system by adopting a new hiring policy – with a no-nepotism rule that strictly bans school directors from hiring their relatives – and otherwise showing area residents that you intend to follow best board practices rather than business as usual. (For example, a good start would be to hire the next superintendent from outside the district.)
The days of delaying, ducking, deflecting and denying are over. That became evident at Wednesday's board meeting, attended by at least one vocal board critic, multiple TV and print reporters and two Secret Service agents who served the district with multiple subpoenas.
If board members continue to drag their heels on reform measures, the clouds of suspicion will only intensify. Luzerne County residents, since a federal crackdown on corruption began here in 2009, witnessed a massive overhaul of the county's justice system, including courthouse procedural changes and many new judges on the bench. Similarly, a majority of reform-minded voters decided to completely redo county government, tossing out the former three-commissioner setup in favor of home rule.
Meanwhile, the tarnished Wilkes-Barre Area School District has done … what? Anything?
Three former WBA school directors became ensnared in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's corruption crackdown. Each man subsequently admitted to accepting or passing a bribe in exchange for conducting school business, resulting in prison time or home confinement. Even so, certain see-no-evil school directors strapped on their blinders and pretended they didn't need to respond with institutional changes. All is OK, they insinuated. Leave us be.
Since then, the district's longtime solicitor has been federally charged with operating a Ponzi scheme, and a review by this newspaper indicated his bills to the school district had increased astronomically in recent years but apparently not drawn the board's attention.
Plenty of area residents are fed up. Don't take our word for it; hear it from them. Below is a recent sample of readers' online comments in regard to the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board.
rollin in my chair wrote: "WE didn't elect you so you can hire your kin. WE hired you because we thought you were aware of what we wanted, and that was to stop with the hiring of family members. If someone with a 4.0 shows up for a job and you give the job to your 3.0 child, the children are then getting cheated."
EJ wrote: "The school district is wrought with nepotism. It's their way of life."
Citizenreader wrote: "While it is true that there are fewer secondary math teachers available for hire at any one time, there is certainly no shortage these days. I know quite a few teachers who are certified (and qualified) in secondary math who have expressed great frustration at finding jobs here in NEPA."
Carl E. wrote: "I remember early in the corruption probe that a Wilkes-Barre Area school director admitted taking a bribe from a "teacher" for a job. The "teacher's" name was never revealed and remains shrouded in a wall of protection by the W-B School District and the union. That teacher is just as corrupt for offering a bribe as the convicted school director who accepted it, yet is that person still teaching our children? Do they still enjoy the benefits of health care, subsidized continuing education, negotiated annual salary increases and state-supported retirement? You bet they do!
"I'd like to know the names of "teachers" who broke the law to get their jobs. I'd like to know whether they're still employed and I'd like to know when they'll be terminated so their positions can be filled by people who gain the position through their qualifications, not their pocketbooks or connections."
KevinDougherty wrote: "A reasonable person would find it difficult to defend the actions of the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board."
For how much longer will area residents such as these be compelled to wait before this school board demonstrates with words and actions that the message has been received and true reforms are under way? For how much longer will certain board members block progress?
For how much longer will district taxpayers and others wonder if the board can't get this decision right, what kind of logic is it applying to decisions impacting school costs and students' educations?
We're waiting for an answer.
Reform? Or resign?