ED WATCH: Some Power Returned To Communities Over Consolidation?

(01/19/2006)

By Bob Weaver OPINION AND COMMENT

While the WV Board of Education is rolling full force over closing community schools, causing long bus rides up to one and one-half hours each way for many students, there could be some relief in sight.

The 25-member House of Delegates Education Committee, has approved a bill which will go directly to floor vote, calling for citizens of a county to actually vote on future consolidation proposals.

If passed by the legislature, citizens will have a say on the matter related to the closing of elementary and middle schools.

Linda Martin of Challenge WV said "I'm grateful for the cooperation over this measure. The education committee is looking at doing something better for parents, kids and communities."

After closing more than 300 community schools, there are well over 100 elementary and middle schools still on the chopping block.

State education officials have consistently said the decision to close and consolidate is a local decision, but that has been far from the truth.

Mingo County school board president Bill Duty has said "It's been a bloody hammer," since his county is being forced to close three high schools and build a consolidated school on a Red Jacket mountain.

Larry Williams (D-Preston), vice-chair of the education committee, said "This measure gives some balance to the problem," with many WV schools being consolidated.

COMMUNITIES "WORN OUT" BY HIGH-HANDEDNESS

Williams indicated his constituents are "worn out" with the power executed by state education officials.

Martin says the state's educational bureaucrats and officials "totally ignore the research that kids do better in small, community schools."

Education chair Tom Campbell (D-Greenbrier), called for a vote of his committee after two days of discussion. Only one or two members of the 25-member committee voted "nay" and eleven members immediately signed to sponsor the bill.

Campbell said "The bill recognizes that boards need flexibility to be financially prudent. There seems to be a growing consensus that consolidation affecting our younger children is not a good idea.

Challenge WV has said there is no consideration regarding long bus rides for children as young as four years.

"We know what parents think about this," Martin said. "Those at the top are not interested in the dialog."

Howard O’Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Boards Association, spoke against allowing the voters to decide, saying "It just adds another layer to the issue," and could cause fiscal problems for school boards.

O'Cull, while saying he did not have a consensus from his group, was outspoken against it at the committee hearing.

He said he is hopeful lawmakers will ask several looming questions about the bill's implication. He sees it as a problem for local school boards.

Liza Corderio, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said "Of course we'll look closely and review the rationale behind it," but taking authority away from the State Board of Education and the School Building Authority will not be acceptable.

FRAZZLED BY EDUCATIONAL POLICYMAKERS

Thomas Ramey, a Fellow with Challenge WV, said those groups with vested interests have lots of input over education with legislators, "But there is rarely a mention what citizens want for their communities, or what parents want for their kids."

But Ramey said politicians are taking notice. "The public is frazzled with public policy that destroys their schools and takes education away from their communities."

"They are not buying the argument that it saves money or improves their children's education. It does not," Ramey said. "It just creates a gigantic educational empire, detached from communities and parents."

O'Cull, speaking to Challenge WV last fall, said the legislature, over a period of time has removed much of the constitutional power from local school boards, passing it to Charleston.

Martin said "The passage of this bill could bring some hope to parents and voters who are fed up with the state's high-handed authority. Something needs to happen to reflect the will of parents and what's best for children, even though it's a little late for many communities."

Gov. Joe Manchin has been critical of the actions of the State School Building Authority, a group that recently granted themselves an extra pay-raise.

The bill would mandate county elections except when the closure or consolidation was part of a previously approved bond issue.

Counties would also skip elections if the schools at issue averaged less than 13 students per grade level.

The bill also exempts schools that must be rebuilt or repaired following a disaster.

"While there may be rules and regulations for the public to be heard, time after time, in county after county, people gather by the hundreds and tell their school boards not to do this," Martin said, "They are routinely ignored."


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