GOV. WISE SPEAKS OUT FOR SMALL SCHOOLS - Proposed Bill Would Limit Long Bus Rides

Long after a national trend ended, West Virginia has continued to consolidate hundreds of small schools.

Gov. Bob Wise introduced legislation Wednesday night that could slow school consolidation, build small schools and decrease the time children spend on buses.

During Wise's State of the State Address, he said "We must preserve rural and small-town schools and sustain the contributions they make to their communities."

West Virginia has closed 324 elementary and high schools during the 90s.

The lame-duck governor's proposal faces an uphill battle with legislators who have blocked anti-school consolidation and busing bills for years.

Former State Senator Lloyd Jackson, now a candidate for governor, has been the primary leader for school consolidation in West Virginia. Jackson was appointed to the school board by Gov. Wise.

"We're going to go after them like a bulldog," said Linda Martin, who heads Challenge West Virginia, a small-schools advocacy group. "This is a major change. Our governor stood up for children and communities."

Wise called his proposal the "Small Rural Schools Act."

Polls conducted in the state in recent years show that 80% or more of residents favor community schools.

The busing bill would limit one-way bus rides for elementary school students to 30 minutes, middle school students to 45 minutes, and high school students to 60 minutes.

In Lincoln County, where the School Building Authority is moving ahead with a $30 million consolidated school, many students will be riding a bus for an hour and one-half.

Thousands of students across the state travel on buses over reasonable limits.

House Education Committee Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta, D-Hampshire, has already said his committee would not consider Wise's bill this year. He said the legislation would cost rural counties thousands of dollars because they would have to hire more bus drivers and increase trips.

Wise also said he would introduce legislation that requires the state School Building Authority to give more consideration to rural school construction.