The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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April 2, 2013

Fayette BOE members feel left out in state’s new plan on school consolidation

FAYETTEVILLE — Board of Education members registered their reactions to the recent news of a change of direction for Fayette County Schools at their meeting Monday.

For decades, the state had been urging the county to close schools in order to save money and strengthen curriculum by ensuring there are enough teachers to go around. An audit that led to state takeover in 2010 called the amount of work needed to fix the county’s existing facilities “insurmountable.”

But last week, news came that the state superintendent of schools, Dr. James Phares, has been meeting with two citizens to plan a public engagement process that will explore the possibility of developing a bond proposal focused on keeping community schools open rather than reducing the number of facilities in the county.

The county would then take those funds to the School Building Authority as a match and ask for money to build two new schools, probably Fayetteville Elementary and Mount Hope Elementary.

The bond is expected to go before the public in the fall. How much money is needed to repair the existing facilities is not yet known, but architects and engineers will be working in coming weeks on a cost analysis.

The change in direction came as a total surprise to several board members, including Pat Gray, who wrote to Phares afterward.

“For some this is only about facilities and Friday night football games. As for me and many parents of younger children, this is about so much more,” he wrote.

Putting millions into facilities that are well past their intended life span, writes Gray, “only allows us to cling to an educational past that has not and does not serve our students well.”

“We lack adequate AP curriculum for our schools, we lack the desired number of certified math and science teachers to staff five high schools, and if we pass a bond only to fix the needs that are quoted by your own department as being ‘insurmountable’ ... we will find ourselves back at this very point again, if not in five years, perhaps 10.”

He says that he and the board members had “not been given the respect or due regard” to be informed of a meeting last week of the state superintendent, two citizens and several county administrators about the new plan. He read about it in the newspaper.

A “grassroots” committee intended to reflect a cross-section of Fayette County will be leading community input meetings before the bond is prepared.

Carolyn Arritt of Meadow Bridge is one of two original members of the committee, along with Paul McClung of Summers County.

She has long been attending state school board meetings to advocate for small community schools and addressed the Fayette County Board of Education on Monday.

“A decade of chaos and turmoil has proven that progress will never be had in Fayette County without the input of citizens throughout the county,” she said. “A true democracy will finally decide what is right for all children, not just the children of an elitist.”

She said parents in the county have been “silenced by Big Brother” in the past, likely referring to pressure from the state to close schools.

“The county’s citizenry is not the same throughout the county. The same shoe does not fit all. Each community knows what is best for its children,” she said. “We, the grassroots community, the Fayette County Board of Education, and the state Board of Education must be careful that we do not speak or act in any manner that conflicts or appears to conflict with the general theme as set forth by Mr. Phares.”

But Leon Ivey — who, along with Gray, has kids in school currently — says he has questions for the state superintendent, who he points out is not elected.

“How does this new course do anything to change the educational outcomes of Fayette County? Fayette County has four of the smallest high schools in the state and yet we rank 53rd out of 55 in achievement. ... What research are you providing to the county that backs up this change of course?”

Ivey plans to sit on the steering committee with Arritt and says he hopes to see “convincing data, unlike any we have seen before,” that all the schools can be kept open.

- - -

For the second meeting in a row, a parent from Valley High School spoke to the board about the need for a football field there.

“The issue cannot be put off any longer,” said Gary Rogue. “It’s four months until football season starts. We’d like a decision on this matter.”

He argued that Valley should continue to use the field at WVU Tech until a field can be built.

Fayette County Superintendent Keith Butcher said an engineer will review the Tech field in April for an accurate cost to repair it, but that nothing has been decided yet.

- - -

Associate Superintendent Serena Starcher presented the board with a check for $25,000 from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History to help pay for a new roof for Fayetteville Elementary.

She also told the board that the school system recently received a financial audit report. The report cleared up past findings and was clean except for one new finding, “expenditures not recorded in the proper period.” She explained that because of a “simple error,” expenditures and liabilities for energy management equipment were recorded in the wrong month.

Starcher reports that the county’s assets exceed liabilities by $26.1 million; the total net assets increased by $8.7 million, due to a decrease in Other Post Employment Benefit expenses; and that, as of the close of fiscal year 2012, the board’s governmental funds combined ending fund balance was $7 million.

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