(06/13/2008)
By Dianne Weaver

State Department of Education officials and the State Board has a penchant for consolidating schools when they have taken over county school systems because of poor performance.

Perhaps the best example is the Mingo County school system, still on the front row for consolidation.

Opponents have called such consolidation a "bloody hammer," with the state justifying their actions on poor performance and bad decision making by elected school boards.

Gov. Joe Manchin has said he would not use School Building Authority (SBA) funds like a bloody hammer against the state's rural schools.

The justification indicates consolidation saves money and improves academics, creating greater opportunities for the state's children.

Unfortunately, there is little if any evidence of such.

SBA Director Mark Manchin told media "For the SBA, in every instance, with the exception of the eastern panhandle in places like Berkley County and Jefferson County where growth is amazing...we just haven't approved new schools where there are no children present." (April 24, 2008)

Manchin must have drawn his line in the sand recently.

Still lurking ominously is the closure of five Mingo County schools, with students to be bused long miles over crooked mountain roads to an isolated area, with a yet to be built consolidated school.

The Mingo school consolidation battle has gone on for several years, with the state taking over the system twice, moving consolidation ahead.

State Schools Superintendent Steve Paine said the decision to provide funding ($16.4 million) should bring an end to the discussion.

The state has ignored duly elected school board members, who have lost several court battles over the matter.

Charles "Butch" West, a Williamson attorney and Mingo school board member says the system lacks money to build the new consolidated school, unless county taxpayers approve a school bond issue.

West says the new school could cost $73 million.

It is to be built on a strip mine site on land donated by a coal company, which is being given significant tax breaks for their contribution.

A Mingo development agency is viewing the project as economic development, adjunct to the King Coal Highway which could be completed sometime in the next 30 years.

State appointed superintendent Dwight Dials says the building of the consolidated school is not a matter of "if," but a matter of "when" work will begin.

Despite enormous increases in bus transportation costs, Superintendent Dials says "It will be a great day for Mingo County when the school is built and ready for occupancy."

Challenge WV fellows will be returning to Mingo County in June to re-visit the contentious consolidation battle.


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