|By Dianne Weaver|
State lawmakers want to know if school consolidation has helped or hurt student achievement in West Virginia.
The Legislature created the School Building Authority 17-years ago to replace and repair aging school buildings, giving the agency a lot of power.
During the 1990s, local and state school officials closed about one-quarter of all West Virginia schools in a massive consolidation drive. More are on the block, particularly elementary schools.
The closures resulted in long bus rides for thousands of rural children. In return, students were supposed to do better in new, consolidated schools.
The state has not completed a study to determine whether that actually happened, according to a report just issued by the Legislative Auditor’s Office.
During the last legislative audit, the School Building Authority was told to study whether consolidation affected student achievement.
The agency hired Marshall University to do a study, but that study did not compare consolidated schools to smaller schools.
Instead, they did a general study looking at whether students in large high schools score better on standardized tests than students in small high schools.
Challenge WV coordinator Linda Martin says all the national research shows that children do better in smaller schools located in their own communities.
The Marshall study found that school size had no significant effect on student test scores in West Virginia. In other words, students in small high schools, on average, did as well as students in larger high schools.
Legislative auditors said the report was not specific enough. They thought that a larger study that compared consolidated schools to ones that were not consolidated, would be better.
"The study did not accurately evaluate the situation," said Martin.
Martin said the State Department of Education is yet to come up with an accurate study regarding long bus rides. "They've fudged the numbers," she said.
"With the amount of money the state is spending to consolidate schools, we should have some idea whether it is helping or hurting academic performance," said legislative auditor John Silvia.
Lawmakers agreed that a study is needed, perhaps a joint effort of education schools at Marshall and West Virginia University. They voted to take the issue to legislative leadership and ask for funding for the study.
Dave Sneed, interim School Building Authority director, said his agency does not decide to consolidate schools. That decision lies with local school boards, he said.
Martin says "Sneed is delusional," saying the bloody-hammer is held over the heads of school board members, and in some cases, takeovers result.
Agency rules reward counties that consolidate schools, Martin said. The state Board of Education has consolidated high schools in several of the counties where it took control from locals, including Mingo, McDowell and Lincoln counties.
A 2002 investigation by the Charleston Gazette found during the consolidation push in the 1990s, twice as many children were forced to endure daily bus rides of two hours or more.
Martin says that many of the advanced classes promised never materialized at consolidated schools, and most school districts ended up spending more money after they consolidated schools than before.
"Such takeovers rarely improve education, and they certainly have not reduced costs," said Lincoln board member and Challenge WV fellow Thomas Ramey, who has expressed fear about the financial stability of the Lincoln system.
"School consolidation has not saved the taxpayers a single dime," he said.
"The power structure, bolstered by legislation, is destroying community-based schools and taking control from local elected officials and parents," Ramey said.
"It is a scary thought that Dr. Paine is 'globalizing' education," he said.