The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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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

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.

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