By C.V. Moore
At a Fayette County Board of Education meeting Monday, the state superintendent of schools clarified his directive to the county with regard to school facilities. Namely, he says he hasn’t endorsed any particular path forward.
“There was no directive to do anything other than find out what this community wants to do. I wanted them to put together a process that would lead them to some level of clarity that the board could look at and say, ‘This is what we need to do,’” said Dr. James Phares.
“My intent is when we get on the other side of this that you all know what the best option is. And when we get there, I will go and be your champion at the (School Building Authority) and at the state board.”
School facilities are under close scrutiny as the county revs up for a community input process to find a way forward on a topic that has stymied the county for decades. Aging buildings, a shrinking student population, and a teacher shortage have put pressure on the county to consolidate, but opponents of closing schools fight back with a passion.
The messaging of the community input process has so far suggested that its ultimate goal was to create a bond that would be put before voters this fall to keep all schools open and upgrade them to current standards.
But Phares says at this point anything can happen.
“I’m not sure what’s going to come out on the other side of all this. However, I think the board will get a clear direction from the constituents of Fayette County,” he said.
“My goal is that if we can get this issue resolved and bring the board and community together on facilities in Fayette County, that we can begin to move toward Fayette County taking ownership of their school system again.”
The state took over the county school system in 2010 based mainly on facilities and student achievement issues.
Phares referred several times to the current community input initiative as one entered into by county Superintendent Dr. Keith Butcher.
But the idea began without Butcher’s knowledge, when two Meadow Bridge area residents met with Phares and advocated putting the matter of what to do about school facilities to voters to decide once and for all. Phares complied with their request and entrusted the two citizens, Carolyn Arritt and Paul McClung, with forming a steering committee to oversee the process.
Since it formed, the steering committee’s work has come under criticism by board member Leon Ivey and others, who say that both Arritt and McClung have a clear agenda to preserve community schools, or that the bond would be a “Band-Aid” that does not address the fundamental issue of long-term facility and academic needs.
“I apologize if my presence has offended anyone. It was certainly not my intent to do that,” Phares said Monday.
He said he hasn’t spoken publicly about the matter because he was trying to “stay out of everybody’s way” and because this is “a local issue.”
He also emphasized that the input process will be about more than just facilities. It will also be a chance to talk about academics and student achievement.
“From what I’ve seen that has been put into these agendas, there is going to be a robust conversation about all these issues. Facilities are just one part of the discussion, but it’s an important part,” he said.
With Butcher, he says he has been exploring alternative means of financing some of the facilities projects and looking at ways to get the SBA to see them “in a different light.” He also mentioned the possibility of a cross-county-line school to serve students in the Meadow Bridge area, who live near the border of Summers County.
During his visit to Fayette County, Phares also stopped at Meadow Bridge. He said he was impressed by the empathy demonstrated there by students toward other students, and by teachers toward students.
“You can tell immediately there’s no climate or culture issue with these students. A lot of ‘yes sirs’ and ‘no sirs.’ You don’t see that in a lot of larger schools sometimes,” he said.
Phares took questions from board members after his comments.
“What we’ve been told is that we have a directive from you to have a steering committee put together that will keep all schools open. I’d just like to hear you say that we can look at all the options,” said Ivey.
That’s when Phares said no directive had come from him on a particular path forward. Instead, his desire was to see the county overcome the “indecisiveness and division” that has been its greatest detriment.
“Keeping all schools open is not the only option. The committee had a full understanding of that,” said Phares.
Maintaining all current schools would be a dramatic reversal from the state’s position for over two decades. The need to address critical facilities issues by closing schools at the middle and high school level was one major reason that the state took control of the county system.
Board member Lou Jones lamented the contraction of the county’s school system over the past two decades.
“In 1990 we had 38 schools,” she said. “In 2013 we have 18 left.”
Phares responded that Pocahontas County — one of the first districts in the state to consolidate — had 1,408 students in 1998, the same number they had 100 years previous. But in that span, the number of schools dropped from 104 to five.
“While you all may think you’re alone in all this, there are many counties that are struggling,” he said.
Board member Pat Gray emphasized the importance of focusing decisions on their benefit to the entire county, not just one region.
“We’ve got to look at it holistically,” he said.
The state’s presence at the county level hasn’t done anything to improve schools, board member David Arritt told Phares.
Phares also gave a brief overview of the progress he sees the county making in regard to the deficiencies cited in a 2010 performance audit.
He says steady progress has been made to improve math, reading and social studies test scores since the county was placed on nonapproval status in 2007.
Graduation rates, while still an issue, are improving at all county high schools and the dropout rate has improved over the past three years, said Phares. Participation in AP, honors, and college credit courses is up. He says gains have been made in leadership practices, particularly in finance procedures and policy updating.
Butcher thanked Phares for attending the meeting.
“I appreciate your support in going through this process, and your support with the School Building Authority. We will need your support there,” he said.
“We will. Resources are limited and the needs are great,” replied Phares.
An architect’s report presented at Monday’s meeting put the cost of bringing all current facilities up to code at more than $120 million.
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