The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 30, 2013

Change of heart?

State superintendent says if Fayette County wants smaller community schools, it should have them; Bond to fix existing facilities could be on November ballot

By C.V. Moore
Register-Herald Reporter

FAYETTEVILLE — Under a new superintendent of schools, the state has done a 180 on its attitude toward school closure in Fayette County, reversing over 20 years of directives and challenging one of the major conclusions of an audit that led to state takeover of the county’s school system in 2010.

Superintendent James Phares and two private citizens, thus far working independently from the local board of education, have created a plan to float a bond this fall that would pay to fix the county’s existing facilities, rather than close any schools.

“I’m a proponent of local school districts being able to make decisions on their own about what they are and what they want to do,” says Phares. “I think what the grassroots community wants the opportunity to do is have the voice of the people heard, and their hope is to unite every part of Fayette County.”

“The question now is do the citizens desire for more consolidation to occur so that resources are focused in certain locations, or is it the citizens’ choice that those resources be put in local, community schools? That’s the real discussion here,” says Fayette County Superintendent Keith Butcher.

Phares and the two citizens, Paul McClung and Carolyn Arritt, met privately for several hours with the central office administrators Tuesday in Fayetteville to discuss the plan. Phares says he was requested to do so by all the parties.

At the meeting, Fayette County administrators were instructed to start putting together a bond to present to the public this fall that would keep community schools open and improve existing school buildings, according to Butcher.

“They’ve got to look at their curriculum issues, their facilities issues, their pro forma — to give assurances that they can operate all the schools they’ve got — and to unite the community into a common plan,” says Phares.

McClung and Arritt are forming a steering committee to oversee a “grassroots” community input process that will determine what citizens feel should go in the bond call. They will work with the public, local board, and state board to fine-tune the plan so a bond can realistically pass.

“We will bring together representatives from every community who will go into the rank and file of those communities and say, ‘What does this community need relative to the education for the children?’” says McClung.

“Mom and Dad will tell them what they want. These people will report back to us and Mr. Butcher, and then it will be hammered out with the people present and active in the decision, a truly democratic process for the first time ever.”

Butcher expects that the majority of the bond would be used to address current safety issues and code violations in the county’s aging schools.

Once the bond is put together, Butcher says the county will present it to the citizens in a variety of ways so they are fully informed about what they will be voting on.

“When it comes time for this bond, no one will feel left out, ostracized, antagonized or ignored,” says McClung.

If citizens pass the bond to improve facilities, Butcher says the county would use the funds as a match to request money for two new schools from the School Building Authority (SBA).

Those would likely be a new Fayetteville Elementary and a new Mount Hope Elementary.

Recent top-down bond calls to close existing schools in Fayette County and build a new consolidated high school have failed miserably.

“I think for the past two decades, Fayette County has told them, no, they like their arrangement,” says Phares.

“They are always going to fail until the public is involved,” says McClung.



A new direction

The recent turn of events is a radical shift from what the state has been telling Fayette County for years — that it has too many schools that it can’t afford.

The performance audit that led to state takeover concluded that an extended period of deferred maintenance had brought the county’s buildings to such a deteriorated state that the amount of work to improve them would be “insurmountable.”

“The direction up until now has been to go against the need to keep schools in communities and to follow the lead of many other school districts by consolidating schools to provide a better education,” says Butcher. “And this is a different direction, but we will be asking the voters if this is a direction they agree with.”

Some of the work of closing schools has already been accomplished, with the recent shuttering of Mount Hope High School, Gauley Bridge High School, Nuttall Middle, and Danese Elementary.

The 2010 state audit also called on the county to create a new 10-year Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan (CEFP) to improve student performance.

The county’s current CEFP would whittle five high schools to three, closing Meadow Bridge and Fayetteville high schools. A new high school would be built in a central location to serve current students of Fayetteville, Meadow Bridge, and Midland Trail.

It calls for three middle schools: a new one in Oak Hill, a new one in a converted Midland Trail High School, and Valley Middle School.

This fall’s bond call and the SBA request would not address any of these steps.

“Maybe we could address that in the future, but that would not be a part of this particular effort this fall,” says Butcher.  

He says the purported goal of the bond — improving facilities — is not outside the current facilities plan.

McClung calls the current CEFP “extremely defective” and says that will be “proven in court if necessary.”

Arritt is from Meadow Bridge and McClung lives nearby in rural Summers County. They have long advocated for small, community schools in Fayette County.

They and their allies have been primarily responsible for litigation against the county over school closure in the past.

McClung says that he and Meadow Bridge Citizens for Community Schools were planning to litigate the CEFP, along with the state takeover, before this new change of plans.



County administration sidelined

Phares moved to his current position from a post as superintendent of Randolph County, home of the smallest public school in West Virginia, Pickens School, which has a K-12 enrollment of 37.

He says a small community school model can and has been successful in some places.

“You have to do some things differently, but the model can work,” he says.

Randolph County, the largest county in the state by area, ran 19 schools under his tenure. An excess levy helped support that many facilities in a depopulating county.

Last November, citizens were called to vote on a bond that would keep all those schools open, contingent on a match from the SBA.

The bond failed, and Phares says he believes some of the county’s schools will close as a result.

Phares says he first met Arritt last December, before he became state superintendent, at a meeting in Hamlin where she made a presentation. He subsequently met her at two board meetings. She, McClung and a teacher asked for a meeting at the state board office, which they had Feb. 11.

“We talked and I asked if they had approached local folks about their plan for a grassroots movement,” says Phares.

“Plans were set forward at that meeting for us to move forward with a grassroots effort involving the entirety of Fayette County,” says McClung.

Arritt spoke about the plan at the podium of last week’s county board of education meeting.

But confusingly, Associate Superintendent Serena Starcher followed that with a presentation of the current CEFP, calling for consolidation.

The contradiction in messaging underscores the extent to which the state and private citizens were working separately from the central office administration.

Butcher had planned to have a series of community meetings throughout the county in April to discuss facilities, but those are now postponed.

“It began to look like that was going to falter at a local level,” says McClung, so Tuesday’s meeting among all parties was arranged.

The previous week, Butcher and staff members requested a meeting with Phares to discuss the new direction that Arritt presented, the CEFP, and school closures.

“I said, ‘You’ve got a committee out there that’s forming that wants to look at that.’ I said, ‘Would you be willing to meet with them?’ and they said yes,” says Phares.  



An end to factionalism?

“(Phares) has yet to come to Fayette County and meet with the Fayette County Board of Education,” says Fayette board member Leon Ivey. “But he’s pretty much directing Meadow Bridge to call the shots.”

But McClung denies that regionalism plays a role in his efforts.

“I’m an advocate for every school in Fayette County. ... There’s always been an appearance of extreme regionalism in this corner of the county, and that’s not the case. We just believe in small schools,” says McClung.

“We also recognize that there’s urban sprawl and sometimes there’s a need for schools to consolidate. We’re not blind to that.”

McClung says the steering committee will include representatives from all over the county, with different viewpoints.

“We would be remiss if we placated or favored ourselves toward people who saw this through our eyes,” says McClung.

Though he is “200 percent” sure this fall’s bond call will not close Meadow Bridge, he, at the same time, says he is willing to accept the will of the people.

“If we lose, we lose. Let the chips fall. If we bring a grassroots effort to the county and it won’t pass a bond, then it’s time to throw our hands up and say the public has spoken, let’s listen,” he says.

“One of the things we all agreed upon when the meeting ended was that if they went through with this and the bond failed, then they would carry out the current CEFP,” says Phares.

Why should those in favor of consolidation trust the process, which is currently being directed by two strong proponents of keeping schools small?

Butcher says he would “simply ask that those citizens get involved ... and state what their wishes are.”

For his part, McClung says his effort is an attempt to stop the divisiveness and constant opposition that has occurred between the county board of education and the citizens. This dynamic was another reason for state takeover.

“It’s to bring an end to the civil war,” says McClung.

Board member Lou Jones says she is thrilled about the new direction.

“I think it’s a great way for us to go — to try to forget about consolidation and try to get a bond through that can give everybody something. ... At one time we had 41 schools. We’re down to 18, and I think if we can’t support 18 schools, then there’s something wrong,” she says.



The bottom line

A significant question remains: Can the citizens afford the cost of renovating the county’s schools, or is that cost simply too high — “insurmountable,” even — as the state has been insisting up until this point?

Butcher says that regardless of the intentions of a bond, there’s a critical price point that voters, and those who design the bond, will need to negotiate.

“There’s a fine line to be walked there,” he says.

Architects will visit the county’s schools to put a cost to the facilities needs that would be addressed in a bond call.

Butcher says a lot of work needs to be done between now and November, when the bond is expected to float, and that the steering committee will be meeting weekly until then.

In the meantime, county administrators will gather information on facilities needs and get legal procedures in place for the bond.

On May 6, Phares will visit Meadow Bridge Elementary and then speak to the county board of education. He says he expects the board will probably have the definitive answer at that point as to what they want to do to move forward.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com