(02/04/2009)
FOUR MINGO SCHOOLS CLOSING

Top to bottom: Gilbert, Matewan, Williamson and Burch High Schools, nearly all built in the late 70's, early 80's, will be closed, putting many students on super-long bus rides over tortuous Mingo County roads

By Dianne Weaver

Mingo County's contentious county-wide consolidated high school on Red Jacket Mountain is moving ahead.

Recently, only 7% of Mingo voters turned out to vote on a $40 million operating levy that four board members went on record saying the school system did not need.

"It is disheartening that the 93% of the county's voters wasn't interested," said Thomas Ramey, Challenge WV executive director. The voting day was changed by officials from times that turn-out would likely be high, including the general election.

The levy money did not directly go toward the construction of the consolidated school.

West Virginia School Building Authority director Mark Manchin has announced the state is ready to build five brand new schools, depending on how much federal stimulus money is available for the projects.

He says $20.5 million will be added for the new Mingo school to replace high schools in Gilbert, Matewan, Williamson and Burch. Those high schools have a combined enrollment of 1,138.

Opponents of the the mega-school says the costs of locating it on a strip mine site adjacent the proposed King Coal Highway, could reach $75 million with infrastructure included.

Challenge WV has worked with opposition groups in Mingo County, most of which support community schools and are opposed to students being on long bus rides of one-and-one-half hours or more each way.

The Mingo County school system has been under state control for several years. Bill Duty, a Mingo school board member, has called it the "bloody hammer of consolidation," action often moved forward by state education officials when they take-over county systems claiming poor performance.

Challenge's Ramey says performance levels in virtually all cases of state take-overs have continued to decline.

THE LEVY BATTLE

The recent low-vote Mingo school levy passed by a vote of 1,086 "for" the levy, with only 302 voting "against" the levy, had a 7.13 turn out.

Four of Mingo County Board of Education members took out an ad before the election saying they "did not make the determination that there existed a monetary need for an excess levy, nor did we issue the call for this levy."

Their notice to the taxpayers pointed out that both State Superintendent Dr. Paine and Mingo Superintendent Dwight Dials had refused the request of the elected board for an audit by the State Auditor.

The four board members asked for the audit "to determine if, in fact, Mingo County needs additional money to provide a high quality system of education to our children; and, if so, how much and for how long."

Duty said, "Some counties may need an excess levy, but Mingo County doesn't."

Board member Mike Carter said he would support the excess levy if there was an actual need for the extra taxation.

BIG SCHOOL ON THE MOUNTAIN

State officials say the consolidated high school is expected to cost around $37 million to build.

"That figure does not include athletic facilities, equipment and a multitude of infrastructure," said board member Mike Carter.

The consolidated high school is part of Mingo's economic redevelopment package along the King Coal Highway, which includes a number of development projects.

Duty has said, "People should follow the money," indicating he believes the project has little to do with educating Mingo children."

Opponents also claim that the donated strip site, which has likely involved several million dollars in concessions to the coal company, is situated over underground mines, one of which is on fire.


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