ED-WATCH: Dismantling County School Systems, New Era Of Consolidation

(05/27/2006)

By Dianne Weaver

The next generation of school consolidation has come to West Virginia, and it's the elimination of county lines.

Its selling point is giving parents a "choice" of where their children attend school, a concept that has wide appeal, at least on the surface.

If a few more Calhoun students make a "choice" to go to neighboring county schools, the county's fragile budget could be demolished.

Nearly 150 students from Lincoln County's closed Hart's High School have been encouraged to attend a new high school, built with School Building Authority funds at Chapmanville, Logan County.

The Chapmanville school was a candidate for closure, with those students likely being consolidated in their own county, but Sen. Earl Ray Tomblin convinced the SBA to construct a new school, contingent on capturing students from neighboring Lincoln County.

"The Chapmanville school needed the Lincoln students to meet economies of scale," said Challenge fellow and newly elected Lincoln school board member Thomas Ramey.

Harts was closed after a long intra-county battle over consolidation, ending in the erection of the new Lincoln County High School at Hamlin at a cost of $32-$40 million.

Logan will now be sending school buses into Lincoln to transport the students, traveling the same routes where pick-ups are being made to transport students to Hamlin.

The loss of students, with more expected, will cost the Lincoln system about $1 million.

Dr. Anne Seaver, newly appointed superintendent of Lincoln County schools, said "The decisions related to cross-county school attendance were clearly decided before I arrived" but admitted "The scale of this is of concern."

Seaver linked the school consolidation issue to the closing of one-room schools, saying an economies of scale model is necessary to keep schools financially sound.

She could not give an example of where school consolidation actually saved money, indicating she was not familiar with the research. "I focus on doing what I can do to give children the best education."

Birdie Gandee, Lincoln's school treasurer, told the State Board of Education she is vitally concerned how the large loss of students to Logan County will affect the county budget, indicating "We'll likely have to close more schools to make ends meet."

Some Lincoln school officials have said the system is on a fast-track toward bankruptcy.

The overhead costs of operating the new Lincoln consolidated high school, the most expensive school built to date in West Virginia, is expected to reach $300,000 annually.

The State Board of Education took over operation of the Lincoln system over five years ago, saying it was poorly managed and students had some of the lowest scores in West Virginia.

Hart's teacher Phyllis Kirk compiled statistics she presented to school officials, called "The Final Show," displaying about a dozen charts that show student performance has dramatically worsened since the state has operated the system.

State School Superintendent Steve Paine still blames the local school board for the systems failure, although nearly all aspects of operation are determined by the state and their appointed superintendent.

Lincoln County board member Carol Smith says, "In the big picture, rural community schools will be the losers," with the WalMarting of schools and creating long bus rides well over the state's guidelines.

Smith said "It's a real blurry problem what happens to school levy money," passed by Lincoln voters, with their children going to other counties.

"Our citizens are paying tax money for their children to be educated in Lincoln County, including the excess levy" Smith said, lamenting that Chapmanville didn't really want Harts kids, and not agreeing to change the school's name to indicate it is serving a regional community.

Linda Manns, the parent of a sixth grade Harts student, said "I'm still sending my daughter to Hamlin, because I refuse to give up my voting rights and my taxes to another county."

The cross-county-line consolidation has mostly affected Lincoln high school students, but "At a board meeting we learned that 37 elementary kids had transferred to Logan," Smith said.

Challenge WV coordinator Linda Martin said Lincoln students going to Logan "Hasn't solved a thing with long bus rides," with only a 15-minute differential in bus ride times. Many Harts students are on a school bus between one and one-half hours each way.

"Now we have children as young as four on these buses," she said.

Martin asked "Why should we let educational bureaucrats get by with this?" Challenge WV has been attempting to obtain the state's plan to regionalize schools.

Superintendent Seaver said "Students crossing county and even state lines is not a new concept in West Virginia."

A number of Preston County students are being bused to Tucker County, with Preston taxpayers refusing to pass an excess school levy. In Williamson, mostly related to the Mingo County consolidation battle, a considerable number of students are enrolled in Kentucky.

While declining comment on a state plan to regionalize schools, Seaver said "The RESAs work at the will and pleasure of the legislature."

"County school boards have already had most of their constitutional powers removed by the legislature," said Ramey.

What concerns Challenge WV and thousands of parents in the Mountain State is the removal of education from their communities and local control.

"It is globalizing education and de-constructing communities."


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