Students and parents jam the halls at West Side Career and Technical Center on Thursday night.Fred Adams /the Times Leader
PRINGLE – Wyoming Valley West students brought home a letter Thursday from Superintendent Michael Garzella advising that the district “expects to discontinue its relationship” with West Side Career and Technical Center.
Many parents saw the letter before a meeting of the West Side Joint Operating Committee was held Thursday night. In response, 150 people – including many students – attended that meeting out of concern for their school’s future.
Garzella said school board members asked him to send the letter home even though they planned to propose a compromise in the dispute about representation on the joint operating committee that runs West Side.
Now each district that sends students to the center has three board members. Arguing it provides nearly 70 percent of the students and a similar share of the center’s budget, Wyoming Valley West has been demanding more representation.
Wyoming Valley West has promised to pull its students – and money – from West Side if it doesn’t get more representatives on the board. Garzella said the district had to start planning for that event, and the letter reflected that planning.
One of the biggest changes would affect ninth grade. West Side is a comprehensive school that teaches students in grades nine through 12, providing vocational and academic courses. Wilkes-Barre Area Vo-Tech only takes students in grades 10-12, and only for half a day of vocational training.
The letter notes that ninth-grade students would be scheduled for classes at the high school and touts it as a plus, giving them “an additional year to select a career field.”
Garzella said the district actually has drawn up two schedules for next year, one that assumes ninth-graders will attend West Side and another that assumes they’ll be in the high school.
The letter also notes the high school is adding several career-track courses, including business and finance, computer aided drafting and pre-engineering. Garzella said the district will offer those courses regardless of what happens at West Side.
West Side Joint Operating Committee Solicitor Charles Coslett has said he believes Valley West must legally send students to West Side, but Garzella said the district can send them to Wilkes-Barre Area on a “tuition basis.”
Garzella said students now enrolled at West Side would still be able to attend there on a tuition basis if they want to, but the letter notes Wilkes-Barre Area Vo-Tech offers more career courses.
Most West Side students and parents who attended the committee meeting were carrying copies of Garzella’s letter. Coslett and the 11 members of the tech school committee present — including Wyoming Valley West representatives James Fender and Thomas Pieczynski — said they didn’t know about the letter before the meeting.
Audience members repeatedly questioned Pieczynski and Fender about how the letter could go out without their knowledge. Pieczynski apologized and after the meeting, he said he would go back to his district and find out why he wasn’t told.
Garzella was asked to stand and explain the letter. “I sent that letter because I was directed by our board president to send it out,” he said. Jack Gill is the board president.
Coslett stated repeatedly that, in his legal opinion, sending students who live in one of the five West Side districts to the Wilkes-Barre tech school is not an option under Section 1875 of the Pennsylvania School Code.
“Wyoming Valley West is part of the service area serviced by (West Side) and that means vocational education for students of the Wyoming Valley West School District is to be accomplished in this building,” Coslett said. He said that students living in the five districts are entitled to a free vocational education without permission from their sending school district.
“You still have a right to come here. You still are welcome to come here,” Lake-Lehman representative Mark Kornoski told students.
While the solicitor and board members reassured parents and students they will still be able to attend West Side, the issue of representation on the school’s joint operating committee remains unsettled.
The meeting’s agenda included a proposal calling for five representatives from Valley West and three each from the other districts. Fender, who proposed that alignment in January, said that it was no longer acceptable to Valley West’s board.
He countered with a proposal based on the percentage of each district’s total population attending West Side. The school that sent the largest percentage of their students would receive five votes on the joint operating committee, with three votes each for the next two highest percentages and two votes each for the last two schools. The percentages would be recalculated each year.
Fender said the proposal “leveled the playing field,” and would encourage schools to increase the number it sends to West Side.
The proposal was defeated 4-7, with the Valley West and Northwest representatives voting in favor.
Wyoming Area representative John Bolin countered with a proposal to extend the existing agreement for one year and continue to negotiate. The measure passed unanimously, but the proposal still needs approval from the full boards of the five districts. Coslett expressed doubt the Valley West board will approve the plan.
The uncertainty led the committee to table the school’s 2008-09 budget. Coslett advised the move, noting “You can’t be voting and binding other districts to a budget if you’re not on the bus.”