The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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April 12, 2013

Fayette County Schools: Phares’ shift in direction not popular with everyone

CHARLESTON — At a state board of education meeting Wednesday, several Fayette County citizens questioned the state superintendent’s recent shift in direction when it comes to the county’s schools, asking how keeping schools open would improve educational opportunities for students.

For decades the state has been urging Fayette to close schools because it could not afford to operate or staff them, due in part to declining student population. Indeed, the audit that led to the state’s takeover of Fayette County Schools in 2010 calls the facilities needs “insurmountable.” Some citizens fought that directive via court battles and rejections of bond calls that would have led to consolidation.

But state superintendent Dr. James Phares, after meeting with two citizens from the Meadow Bridge area, recently reversed that position and put a plan in place that would allow citizens to vote on a bond this fall to make repairs on existing schools, keep all of them open and ask for matching funds from the state to build two new schools.

Fayette board member Leon Ivey, who has two children in the school system, has been an outspoken critic of the move. For one thing, he feels that the plan and the meetings that precipitated it were too secretive.

“One meeting and the course of Fayette County changes — seriously? You hold a private meeting to determine the fate of a county’s educational system. Is this really how a state board of education operates? You rob Fayette County of due process by inventing your own process behind closed doors?” he told Phares and other board members.

He handed Phares a copy of the Office of Education Performance Audits report that led to the state takeover and asked the superintendent to read for himself the marks against Fayette County for having too many high schools, a weak and thin high school curriculum and substandard buildings.

“How does keeping all of the schools open in the county address our shortage of qualified educators? What is your plan to provide better opportunities for our children if all current facilities remain open?” he asked.

Ivey emphasized the county’s low test scores as evidence that small high schools are not working for the county.

Michelle Bennett, a parent from Danese, told the board that she shares some of Ivey’s concerns.

Bennett’s son attended Nuttall Middle School before it consolidated with Ansted Middle. Bennett, who speaks from time to time at county board meetings and remains active in her son’s education, supported the consolidation because she was told it would bring more opportunities. But she says she has yet to see those manifest.

“What I want to know is, the state has control over our county, so when are our kids going to get a better education?” she said.

“When the state took over our county, they told us we were acting irresponsibly and operating too many facilities. Over time, facilities have closed, but we have no curriculum.”

She compared fixing up Fayette’s “dilapidated” school buildings to “putting Band-Aids on a chest wound.”

“In just a few years you’ll be right back where you are,” she said.

Bennett says that she lives in a rural area by choice and that school bus rides are a part of reality she accepts.

“The more the boom towns dry up, the further we have to travel for goods and services, and education is no different,” she said. “I know you can’t keep the small schools in the little communities anymore. You can do more for a large body than a small body.”

Peggy Tolley of Victor recently wrote to Phares expressing her “extreme outrage” at his appointment of a Summers County resident to the steering committee overseeing the county’s new plan.

So far, the committee is composed of Carolyn Arritt of Meadow Bridge and Paul McClung, who lives across the county line in Summers. Tuesday, the committee met and put plans in place to form a larger advisory committee of principals, LSIC chairs and community members.

“I would never be so arrogant as to consider going to another county such as Summers County to voice my opinion about their schools or policies relating to their public school system,” Tolley wrote to Phares.

“May I ask by what criteria you have sought or entertained the opinion that a resident of Summers County ... should be heard instead of an actual resident of Fayette County, someone who has a real stake in the future of our system?”

Arritt defends McClung’s involvement, saying that he lives a mile and a half from the Meadow Bridge Post Office, graduated from Meadow Bridge High School, and sent his children there.

“We’re not bringing someone in from a foreign country to represent us,” she told the board.

Arritt had not planned to speak on Wednesday but said that she felt she had to respond to the others’ comments.

“Many people, contrary to what Mr. Ivey said, were happy to see a change of heart,” she said, referring to a recent headline in The Register-Herald.

“Contrary to what was said earlier, we have a grassroots situation we’re trying to do. ... We need to look at the whole picture. There are people in Fayette County who do want this to happen. They want a voice. They have not had a voice.”

She said that the teachers’ two daily prep periods could be replaced with classes to expand curriculum.

She also said that the comparatively high test scores at Meadow Bridge High School, the county’s smallest, show that the school is an educational “bright spot.”

It appears that the community input process leading to this fall’s bond call could be more contentious than Arritt and McClung had originally anticipated. They had pointed to past bond calls for consolidation that were overwhelmingly rejected by citizens as proof that community schools were desired.

But Ivey and Bennett don’t believe citizens will support the bond this time around either, even though its goal has reversed.

Bennett says she doesn’t see any sense in taxpayers paying $100,000 to hold an election for a bond that “is probably going to be defeated.”

“That money could go into a classroom,” she said.

“It’s my prediction that very few people in Fayette County are going to vote to pass a bond that is designed to throw good money at bad facilities, especially when, in five to eight years, we are right back where we are now,” said Ivey.

“Who would vote to spend their hard-earned money without that money being targeted to directly enhance the academic opportunities for Fayette County students? ... It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road.”

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