ED-WATCH: Full Court Press Killing Community Schools Bill

(03/03/2006)

By Dianne Weaver

It's been a full-court press to kill a grass roots bill in the WV legislature that would return some power to parents over deciding whether or not their community schools would be consolidated.

It would have mandated an election after at least 20 percent of a county's voters had signed a petition.

Much of the opposition has come from the State Department of Education, the West Virginia Board of Education and the WV School Boards Association.

After closing more than 300 community schools, some balance would have been given to citizens regarding the closing of their elementary and middle schools.

House Bill 4040 was almost unanimously approved by the 25-member House of Delegates Education Committee, the vote was 93-4.

Governor Joe Manchin, who ran on protecting community schools, gave some last minute support to the bill, but did not appear to actively support the measure.

Such grass-roots momentum is not enough for the senate's education chair Robert Plymale (D-Wayne).

Plymale said his committee is not going to advance the bill, which effectively kills the legislation.

Plymale said "It's a decision that needs to be made by members of the board of education. If you don't like the decision, you can vote them out."

HEARD IT BEFORE?

Linda Martin of Challenge WV said "That might sound good, but its been the party line since former senator Lloyd Jackson and former delegate Jerry Mezzatesta were the architects of school consolidation."

Jackson, who was defeated in his bid to become governor, used Plymale's "local board decision" statement on the campaign trail, when asked to discuss issues related to school consolidation.

Martin said most West Virginians know about the "bloody hammer" state school officials use to hold local school boards hostage.

"That's the reason for trying to return some power to communities, in face of well over 100 elementary schools still on the chopping block," said Martin, with more likely to come.

Larry Williams (D-Preston), vice-chair of the house education committee, said "This measure would give some balance to the problem," indicating his constituents are "worn out" with the power executed by state education officials.

State education officials continue to ignore the long bus rides created by consolidation. "They keep doing studies with manipulated numbers" about how many students are affected, said Martin.

O'CULL SAYS BILL CAUSES PROBLEMS

Howard O’Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Boards Association, was opposed to having local voting, saying "It just adds another layer to the issue," and could cause money problems for school boards.

O'Cull reminded Challenge WV members at a conference last fall that most of the constitutional powers of local school boards have been removed by the WV legislature, and taken to Charleston.

Debbie Phillips, Putnam County school board president, said the legislation would have provided for more participation from county voters.

"I think it's great to give voters a right. It gives them some debate. And I support that. That's what our country was built on," she said.

Del. Tom Campbell, co-chair of the House Education Committee said, "There seems to be a growing consensus that consolidation affecting our younger children is not a good idea," with thousands of children as young as four being bused one to one-and-one-half hours each way.

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

Thomas Ramey of Challenge WV said politicians are taking notice.

"The public is worn to a frazzle with public policy that destroys their schools and takes education away from their communities," he said.

"Voters could take to heart Sen. Plymale's admonition to 'vote them out,' not just school board members," concluded Martin, recalling the history of Jerry Mezzatesta, who also issued such a challenge.


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