ED-WATCH: WEBSTER'S FIELD OF DREAMS VS. MINGO'S BLOODY HAMMER

(06/12/2007)

OPPRESSION DONE UNDER THE SUN - The state will close 408-student Gilbert High School and bus students over tortuous mountains -

So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done
under the sun; and behold the tears of such as were oppressed,
and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors
there was power; but they had no comforter
- Ecclesiastes Chapter 4

By Bob Weaver

It was different worlds on the same day in West Virginia in the communities of Hacker Valley and Gilbert.

Gov. Joe Manchin and School Building Authority, head Dr. Mark Manchin choppered to Hacker Valley, Webster County to the groundbreaking of a new community school for 50 plus students.

While the music played and salutations were given, Gov. Manchin told a large crowd of parents, students and community leaders that "Children lose that human touch when they are removed from their community."

"When I see the waste in various areas, don't tell me we can't afford schools in our communities...This ground breaking is a field of dreams - if we build it, they will come," Gov. Manchin said.

SBA Director Manchin affirmed the governor's comments, "If people don't believe that we support small schools, they need to come to Hacker Valley to see what is happening here today".

Down-state in Mingo County there was no music, no joy.

At a closure hearing for Gilbert High School, Assistant State School Superintendent Joelea Marple (left) was pretending to be concerned about the future of the school, one of five schools the state is closing to create a consolidated high school on a strip site in a remote area near Red Jacket Mountain.

Marple said "We are here to listen to your concerns," knowing full-well the 408 student Gilbert High will be closed and students will be thrust into long bus rides, in some cases, over three tortuous mountains.

Few came to give their input. The local paper, the Gilbert Times, didn't even have a story about the community shattering event and the school principal said he didn't send a notice home with students about the hearing.

State appointed Mingo superintendent Dwight Dials said several legal notices were placed in the Williamson daily newspaper.

Mingo school board member Bill Duty (right) has called the state's power "the bloody hammer of consolidation."

That hammer was pounding loudly in Mingo County. Duty said community members had already surrendered, there was no need to protest.

Board members are not allowed to speak at closure hearings. Duty signed to speak.

He said the SBA is allocating $18 billion dollars to build the new school, but he remains bewildered about the rest of the funding. Duty believes the consolidated school will cost in excess of $50 million.

Duty questioned the legality of the state's closure hearing and complained he had to use FOIA's to obtain basic information from the state about the project.

"My list of unanswered questions continues to grow," he said.

“The next time someone tells you to get out and vote, your vote counts, don't believe it,” said Gilbert resident Pam Surber (left) at the public hearing.

State officials, who have taken over Mingo County schools, are closing Gilbert, in addition to the Mingo County Career and Technical Center, Matewan, Burch and Williamson schools, consolidating them into one school to be built near Red Jacket mountain.

“The State Board has taken our vote away, a dictatorship when at least four of our elected officials respect the importance of community schools,” Surber said.

Surber said they have shoved consolidation “down our throats.”

"No one I talked to knew there was a meeting," said Surber.

All the Mingo schools slated to be closed were built in the 1970s and 80s.

The closure of Gilbert was not in the original consolidation plan, but has been included likely to meet the state’s economies of scale model.

The Gilbert community school was built in the 1980s, a structurally sound, attractive and well-appointed building.

While state school representatives minimized the effect of long bus rides over several tortuous mountains, Challenge WV fellow Lorelei Scarbro (right) said she was outraged that closure was even being considered.

“We've been all over your county today. Are you crazy?,” she asked. “I can't believe you've convinced yourselves you are doing this for the sake of the children,” using a phrase coined by Massey CEO Don Blankenship.

“Can you even imagine Gilbert area kids participating in after-school activities?”

Scarbro noted the state was unwilling to fund a new school at ill-fated Marsh Fork in Raleigh County, sitting within a few feet of a noisy and dirty coal operation and lurking under the shadow of a multi-billion gallon Massey sludge dam.

“We’d gladly use the SBA’s funds in Marsh Fork,” she said.

Gilbert citizen Dan Browning (left) asked state officials if there is “anything we can do to keep Gilbert High from being closed.” There was no response to his question.

“Don't you believe you have to come out of some big mega school to be successful,” said Browning, using his children as examples. “You will demolish this community by closing this school,” he concluded.

W. C. Totten, a retired Mingo school official, told parents that he was told that the valedictorian of Burch High School was really a C-student when they got to Marshall University.

“Mingo has too many teachers and too much personnel,” he said. “We need to get on the ground floor (new school) so teachers can bid on jobs and not be excluded. Officials said Gilbert’s faculty senate voted to close the school and consolidate, indicating they feared losing their seniority.

“Private donations will develop the sports fields,” said Totten (right) “The sky's the limit on what the new school can offer.”

The new Mingo school will be be built on remote land that is currently being stripped by a coal company, and would eventually be in close proximity to the proposed King Coal Highway.

Nicewonder Coal is "donating" the land, provided there are lots of concessions, including tax breaks.

Currently there is no usable road to the school site, eight to ten miles from the nearest paved highway.

Challenge WV reported earlier that the new school is being used as an economic development engine, including the purchase of land around the school and the King Coal Highway.

Challenge WV has asked citizens to "Follow the money."

The Bluefield-Daily Telegraph reports there is a long road ahead for the $1.6 billion King Coal Highway.

With funding lacking, "At 50 million a year from the federal government, which is described as simply wishful thinking, plus state matching dollars, it would take 36 years at a minimum to build the highway across southern West Virginia."

Gilbert’s most notable citizen is coal barron and philanthropist Buck Harless, now in his 80s. Multi-millionaire Harless has given much back to his coal community, including the expansive Larry Joe Harless Community Center.

He has likely been a big supporter of his community school.

During the closure hearing, it was said that Harless supports Mingo’s school consolidation and the new facility to be built on a still functioning strip mine next to the long-planned King Coal Highway.

See   The Challenge


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