WB Area's Costello tells court of successes amid much sacrifice

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Jan. 26—Wilkes-Barre Area Superintendent Brian Costello began testimony Tuesday at the school fair funding trial by praising success in his district, from the millions of dollars seniors are offered in scholarships to the STEM academy, the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) Academy and the new Business Academy.

He also touted the fiscal turnaround from projected unsustainable deficits to a surplus and a restricted capital projects fund, as well as construction of a new consolidated high school.

Then he painted a vast picture of the failures and shortcomings the district faces thanks to inadequate state funding.

"I think it's important to celebrate all the accomplishments our students have had, but it's also important to know when we need additional support," he told Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer. "I'm an advocate for our students, and honestly I can't think of a better example than being here today to give them a voice."

Costello is expected to be the last witness called by the "Petitioners," the various parties that filed a lawsuit in 2014 contending the state government is violating its own Constitutional requirement to provide a thorough and efficient system of education. They also argue the state education funding system discriminates against students by providing inadequate money to many poorer districts.

Wilkes-Barre Area is one of six school districts that joined the suit, along with four parents and two statewide education advocate associations. Known as William Penn School District et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et al., attorneys for the petitioners are being provided by the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, the Public Interest law Center, and the O'Melveny law firm.

Costello testified for about three hours, with the judge allowing questioning to continue 30 minutes beyond the scheduled 5 p.m. recess for the day. He opened with his own long affiliation with Wilkes-Barre Area, graduating from GAR Memorial High School ("I have to say that because I'm on the stand today and they are all watching") and his employment as a a Meyers chemistry teacher, dean of students and assistant principal at Coughlin, district director of secondary curriculum and director of education before becoming superintendent in 2016.

He hewed closely to the point of the trial, often addressing the judge directly from a testimony box surrounded by clear plastic shields on sides facing the court room. Asked about his biggest challenge as superintendent, he replied "Knowing all students can learn, that all students can succeed, but that without the necessary funding, without the resources to thrive? That's something we deal with every day."

Asked if all students have adequate resources, he was succinct. "Unfortunately, no."

The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Academy has been popular even when it was set up in a rundown makeshift basement room of Meyers High School, he said, and is even more popular in a specially-designed section of the new high school in Plains Township. But the district can't offer it to all those interested because it can't afford to hire the teachers that would require.

He stressed that the STEM, CAPA and Business Academies were designed as ways to make students want to come to school, not just to teach them the specific subjects, and said more resources would help discover ways to get more students excited about school.

He also admitted the district cut scores of jobs, left many positions vacant upon retirements, and cut different programs to stave off a predicted growth of deficits. Family and consumer sciences, industrial arts, librarians and elementary art teachers were cut to turn the budget around.

"My job as a superintendent is to provide the resources for students to succeed, and cutting programs you know are going to affect the children is extremely difficult and makes you question 'what are we doing?'"

Costello said his own daughter loved art and it was her motivation to get through other classes. "That's heart breaking."

Pointing out more than 80% of the district's students are from economically disadvantaged homes, he said "It's very difficult to come to school every day and know these students want to learn and succeed, but we just don't have the resources."

Costello repeatedly described a system of constant trade offs: A new program or filling a specific need always comes at the expense of some other program. The district decided elementary and middle school class sizes should be smaller, but that more teachers would cost too much, so reading specialists were reassigned to classrooms, leaving fewer specialists to help students with problems.

"It becomes very difficult just to maintain what we have."

And he justified building the new consolidated high school despite financial difficulty as a long-term money saver. The three former high schools were deemed too costly to renovate and update, and even if the district could afford to do so, it did not have enough money annually to keep them fully staffed and offer the same programs in all three buildings.

Along with the high population of economically disadvantaged children, the district also has large numbers of English as Second Language and minority students often requiring additional supports: Intervention specialists, reading specialists, more math specialists, guidance counselors, social workers, and home school visitors were a few he said the district could use.

Other things the district lacks: District-funded pre-kindergarten, adequate remediation support for struggling students, a true gifted program rather than in-class "enrichment" opportunities, and not enough teachers. "It's not something to be proud of," he said when asked about the decline in teachers during his tenure. "It decreased significantly, from approximately 540 to 450."

Costello is expected to resume testimony Wednesday morning. The proceedings are streamed live, including through fundourschoolspa.org/trial.

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish