The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 8, 2013

State BOE meets at Meadow Bridge to hear ideas

MEADOW BRIDGE — Although Meadow Bridge High School was removed from the Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan (CEFP) for a year, no one has a definite idea about where to go from here.

The state Board of Education president gathered people from Fayette County for a special meeting at the school Thursday evening to allow people to give their ideas about how to best serve the county and each of its schools, but problems were also talked about.

“This is a very important meeting for all of us,” Gayle Manchin said. “As president of the state board, we look and face challenges around the state every day. One of the most unfortunate challenges we face is a decrease in population. I was sad to find out in a meeting recently that we have lost another 1,200 students in this state.

“That impacts everything we do. It impacts every county, every community, every school. It increases the challenge of providing our children with the most efficient, high-quality education that we can.”

Manchin said the state board respects and understands the history of Meadow Bridge and why it fights so hard to keep its school. She also said everyone has to be considered, from Meadow Bridge to Midland Trail.

“We do talk about Meadow Bridge, but we also talk about Fayette County,” she said. “If we could take a helicopter and hover over Fayette County and look down to where our population is, where the bulk of our students are and then talk about where is the best location for those children to be in school, one of the things we have to begin doing is blurring county lines.

“We have Logan and Lincoln doing that. We have Mason and Putnam County talking and discussing that. We’ve got to start thinking for the future.”

Before board members opened the floor for public comments, Fayette Superintendent Keith Butcher displayed data that shows how things have changed in Fayette County over the last several decades.

“Back in 1950, there were 20,265 students in Fayette County,” Butcher said. “Today, we have enrolled 6,810. Just since last year we’ve lost 57 students. To put that into perspective, the funding for 57 students would pay for 4.1 professional educators or 2.5 service personnel. I have to adjust for losses like that when I make the budget for next year.

“We also have to take into account how much money is in our unrestricted fund balance. It helps us pay for things that might come up through the year. That budget has dropped over the years. In 2009, we had $6,950,000. Last year we had $2,857,000 in our balance. When emergencies come up, we want to make sure we can handle those as they occur.”

With the budget dropping, Butcher says jobs will have to be cut if Fayette County wants to stay out of debt.

“We do have employees over the state formula,” he said. “The state calculates how many employees are necessary to staff our schools. If we go over that formula, we have to pay for those additional personnel out of our unrestricted fund balance.

“We have 20 professional employees over the state aid formula. We are 40 service employees over. That costs us about $2,772,000. We’ll have to reduce our employees to stay in the black next year.”

The board has been looking at the common needs of schools around the county, Butcher says. He said the greatest need schools are Collins Middle, Mount Hope Elementary, Fayetteville Elementary, Meadow Bridge High, Ansted Elementary and Ansted Middle.

“When you reach a point to where the repair costs of the school reach 60 percent of the value of the school, we look at building a new school,” Butcher said.

Butcher also talked about some of the possible plans the board is looking at to fix everyone’s problems.

“One of the things we are thinking about is what it would look like if we had a Pre-K through 8 school at Meadow Bridge. The Oak Hill area continues to grow in population as other areas continue to drop a little bit. We also find that there’s overcrowding in New River Elementary and Rosedale Elementary.

“The steps that are currently for the CEFP are the closure of Gatewood Elementary. Collins Middle School will become a five through eight facility. There is a proposed bond coming up in May 2014. We’ll have to have a plan put together by January to be able to make that bond.”

When the floor was opened for questions and comments, none of the speakers were happy with the way things are being handled.

One parent said she feels like Meadow Bridge is getting special treatment.

“Monday at the meeting, we were told that Gatewood Elementary was going to be closed,” Christina Bryant said. “We were told about putting our sixth graders into a high school. Are we going to get the year study like everyone else?

“I was told our closing hearing was in December, even though we just heard about it in November. Why do you want to put sixth graders in a high school? Are we going to get that study as well? We are being discriminated against.”

The study Bryant mentions is one the Fayette board is going to be doing about how to best handle the education needs of Meadow Bridge High School students and whether the school should be closed.

One Meadow Bridge Elementary teacher says she feels like her school is being treated unfairly, too.

“I’m confused because when I came to this meeting this was going to be here to talk about the one-year plan,” Angela McClung-Gilkerson said. “I think there’s a big miscommunication between the boards of education and the communities as well. I think it’s ridiculous that we have to take this from the board before the state board actually intervenes. As students drop in the county, the central office has more employees than ever. I think we’re being strong-armed.”

In the end, Butcher said he believed the meeting went well.

“I think it’s always a success when you can open a dialogue with citizens and really listen,” he said. “We did really hear some suggestions this evening on what might be included in a one-year study about the students at Meadow Bridge and how they can be educated. We want to continue to gather information and to listen to the citizens. I think any time you can open a dialogue, it’s a positive thing.”

Butcher said he understands that parents and community members might get frustrated when their questions don’t get answered as soon as they ask them at meetings, but he does the best he can.

“When we’re asked personnel questions, we certainly can’t answer those for confidentiality,” he said. “I can’t comment on things like that. For data requests, people send those things to us and we get back to them. For knowing exact figures about what expenses are from one school to another school, I don’t have that information from the top of my head.

“When people make those requests, I’m more than willing to try to get them that information. I am always honest and straight forward and let the data speak for itself. I’m perfectly willing to respond to any data requests.”

Butcher also said it’s hard to keep track of so much data because so much goes into running a school system that the public might not realize, but he understands everyone’s frustrations.

“We certainly have to consider all of those factors,” he said. “I really do understand issues about participation and afterschool activities if you’re a student who’s far away from a facility. That would be an extra burden on families and it would be a little bit harder.

“We can try to fight that with activity bus runs that help provide transportation so that parents don’t have to worry about that. It would be an obstacle to overcome. We have to balance that with the amount of money that we have to run the school system.”

— E-mail: cneff@register-herald.com

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