By Cody Neff
In spite of comments from the public and state officials about the poor state of the Fayette County school system, the county’s director of operations says things aren’t as bad as everyone thinks.
In fact, he says they’re getting better.
“I’m convinced that the state takeover of Fayette County is improving results,” Ron Cantley II said. “It’s not just a feeling. It’s data-based.”
Cantley started looking to see how bad things were after West Virginia State Board of Education President Gayle Manchin apologized at a Fayette County board meeting in early September.
“I will tell you that I’m embarrassed and I apologize to you, as a state board member, for what our state has done in counties in terms of turning them around in the way that we should have done,” Manchin said. “I’m not proud that the state board for West Virginia, who’s supposed to have the answers, have not been diligent enough in what we should have done.”
According to Cantley, the state takeover was good for the county and has produced lots of good results, including renovations to schools, improving test scores and safety improvements.
“We spent approximately $8 million in Fayette County and we’ve added (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) equipment, lighting, plumbing and we paid for that and are paying for all of that by the savings,” Cantley said. “We haven’t had to raise taxes in order to add that new equipment.
“We’ve had three Major Improvement Projects that were funded by the State Building Authority. Two of them were for Divide Elementary. We added two classrooms, a safe-school entrance and we’re starting soon, in the next few weeks, to replace the coal-fired boiler there. At Valley High we added the auxiliary gymnasium.”
Cantley says a safe-school entrance allows school officials to screen and delay visitors before they can get into a school. Before the new entrance was installed at Divide, a person could walk right into the school. Now visitors have to wait to be approved and buzzed into the school by the secretary.
Since the state took over, WESTEST scores have improved by almost an entire school’s worth of children.
“Since 2008, the proficiency level in math for all students in Fayette County has gone up from 27 percent to 36 percent,” Cantley said. “It’s also a 9 percent increase in reading and language arts. If you take 9 percent and multiply that by our second month enrollment last year of 6,897, that’s 620 more students at mastery than if we had the same proficiency rate. That’s 620 individual people doing better. This is just one piece of data that shows that there’s an improvement.”
Cantley says the county has made several improvements in different areas in order to save money.
“We’ve had three closures, Danese, Nuttall and Mount Hope, that are projected to save us over $1 million,” he said. “In workers’ compensation costs, we’ve saved around $365,000. We saved $125,000 last year and we’ll save $245,000 this year. That’s money saved just by people being safer in their jobs.”
Fayette County has also partnered with a few local organizations to help save money and improve lives in the community.
“We participate in something called a ‘demand response’ program with the power company,” Cantley said. “What happens is we sign up to be an electrical emergency capacity provider. Just two weeks ago we got a call that there was an emergency in the grid. They had shut some power plants down for maintenance. When they did that, it stressed the grid. They called us and asked us to cut back our power use and it saves people all over the grid.
“Over four years, if we perform well, we’ll end up saving over $73,000. We’ve already done the first two years of that. Once again, we didn’t have to tax anyone for that.”
Fayette County schools have also worked with New River Health to save money and bring in new services.
“We have two new health clinics, one at Oak Hill High and one at Valley High,” Cantley said. “At Oak Hill we were able to move the health clinic out of the school and free up some space in the school. There’s about 480 square feet in that space. If you bought 480 square feet, that would be very expensive. We got it for free just by cooperating with New River Health, plus you get all of the benefits of having a health clinic right by your school.”
Cantley says these savings have been a huge help to schools in the area that needed repairs.
“We’ve taken those local dollars and started to apply them into projects in the system like a new sewage treatment at Midland Trail,” he said. “We’ve put new roofs on Midland Trail, Mount Hope Elementary, Gauley Bridge Elementary, Fayetteville Elementary, Ansted Middle, Valley Elementary. We replaced a coal-fired boiler at Meadow Bridge Elementary. We’ve done playground upgrades at every elementary school except for New River. We put in new football bleachers at Midland Trail and two new sections of bleachers at Fayetteville High. We did some new sidewalk and road construction at Oak Hill/New River campus.”
Despite having nearly $3 million in its unrestricted fund balance, Cantley says Fayette County’s money is as good as spent as long as the county is overstaffed.
“The money in the unrestricted fund balance isn’t just money sitting in the bank,” he said. “We use this to balance next year’s budget and fund an overstaffed condition. If you have employees beyond what is allowed in the budget formula, you have to pay for anything over the allowed amount on your own.”
Cantley says he would love to use the money to fix other roofs and schools in the county, but the money has to pay for employees. He says there are only a few ways to fix an overstaffed condition.
“We can try to be more efficient than what we are now, but consolidation is the primary way to help with an over-staffed condition,” Cantley said. “We do look for ways to be efficient to save money. We could try to do away with coal-fired boilers. We got rid of one of the boilers and eliminated overtime at that location. You have to keep the boiler fired during all holidays and weekends and that creates overtime.
“We’re also worried that regulatory events are going to overtake us with coal. We’re concerned that people are going to have us put scrubbers on our stacks and things like that so that’s just another reason that we’re trying to move away from coal-fired boilers.”
Although things are getting better in Fayette County, Cantley says everyone knows they have a long way to go.
“We still have big challenges to work on,” he said. “Old gas and coal boilers, deficient roofs, and academic improvement come to mind. We still have miles to go in academic improvement. We know that. Our biggest challenge is still building an actionable consensus in the county.
There is nothing to be embarrassed about over our past few years. The data is telling us the opposite, that it’s having a positive impact.”
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