Tuesday’s Fayette County Board of Education meeting was just going to be a chance for the board to show off its new Capital Improvement Plan to fix the education system in Fayette County, but people at the meeting wanted their voices to be heard.

“The citizens of Fayette County, with the exception of Meadow Bridge, feel that this is the right time to consolidate schools,” said one parent, who preferred not to be named. “There is a solution to the situation though. The county is set up for three high schools geographically. One high school for Valley, one high school for Route 19 and one at Meadow Bridge. The three schools along Route 19 are separated by just 14 miles of four-lane highway. In a vehicle, this is an 18-minute trip.

“Why not split the area between Midland Trail and Meadow Bridge evenly? That would mean shorter rides for everyone. If the plan is successful, students from the Meadow Bridge area will have one-way trip over 30 miles. A commute of that distance is a hardship that our students and families should not have to experience.”

The Capital Improvement Plan put forth Tuesday night calls for Midland Trail High School to be renovated to accommodate its merger with Fayetteville and Meadow Bridge high schools.

The current Fayetteville High will become Fayetteville Middle and will include Fayetteville-area students grades six through eight and Ansted Middle School.

A new school will be built for Collins Middle School and Mount Hope Elementary School. A new Fayetteville Elementary will be built to include Fayetteville and Gatewood elementaries.

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Lengthy bus rides were brought up at multiple points throughout the meeting. The people of Meadow Bridge that spoke made it clear that they don’t want to make their kids travel.

“There’s too much traveling,” said Shirley McGraw. “Kids have to get up too early now and get home too late in the afternoon. How do we expect kids to take part in extracurricular activities if they spend all their time on the bus? How much time will the parents get to spend with their children if they have to sit on the bus for an hour and still do their homework when they get home? It just isn’t right.”

Board member Leon Ivey, however, pointed out something that parents failed to mention in their bus ride math.

“You know, I’ve heard people say all night that 45 minutes is too long of a bus ride,” Ivey said. “According to the football schedule this year, Oak Hill plays Point Pleasant. That’s at least a two-hour drive, one way. No one complains about that. No one says that it’s too much for their kid to handle or that the weather might not cooperate. We’re too quick to forget these sorts of things when it involves a ball game. We have to be objective when it comes to the kids.”

Other speakers had their own ideas about what is fair to the kids of Fayette County.

“We simply cannot afford all the schools we have,” parent Jeff Heater said. “We cannot afford to keep going like this. The numbers don’t lie. Fayette County has one of the worst school systems in the country. West Virginia is 49th in the nation. That is not OK.

“If we don’t support the plan that the professionals have brought forward tonight, it means we’re OK with keeping things the way they are. That is absolutely unacceptable and unfair to the kids.”

Heater wondered aloud whether the city of Meadow Bridge is keeping the entire county at ransom by refusing to allow consolidation. His comments had some in the crowd grumbling and a couple shouted their objections at Heater, causing board president Steve Bush to call for order.

Gayle Manchin, president of the West Virginia State Board of Education, was a guest at the meeting and gave her opinion of the growing tension in the room.

“I don’t understand why it has to be a ‘them versus us,’” Manchin said. “I don’t understand why we can’t serve all the students in Fayette County. I understand that there needs to be some consolidation and that there needs to be some changes made. Why can’t we accommodate for all of our children?

“I know there are issues, but we need to deal with those issues in their communities and with parent involvement with a consensus of understanding of how we can do this better. Until this county can come together and value each other, until we can reach some kind of consensus, we can’t move forward.”

Manchin also apologized for the state of the county’s education since the State Board of Education took over, saying she was “embarrassed” at the way the situation was handled.

Ivey said members only have the best interest of the children in mind.

“Each story that everyone tells can be echoed across every community in the state,”  member Leon Ivey said. “Fighting and arguing doesn’t help anyone and it certainly doesn’t help the kids.

“I didn’t get into this job for the kids who have parents who are involved and has everything that he or she needs. I got into this for the kids who have nothing. I’m in it to help the kids who don’t have parents who come to every function and meeting. Those are the kids that need our help the most.”

At the end of the night, Superintendent Keith Butcher revealed the plan the board hopes will pull the county out of the mud.

“Since the (Office of Education and Performance Audits) gave their report for Fayette County, the graduation rates and levels of student achievement have increased, but the issue of inadequate facilities must be addressed now,” Butcher said. “This plan will use existing facilities and properties and will improve district financial stability.”

If the plan is completed as written, by November 2022, the county will have eight elementary schools, two middle schools, one combination elementary and middle school, and three high schools.

Aside from the major mergers, several schools and facilities will receive new roofs, floor coverings and drainage systems.

The plan will be voted on by the West Virginia State Board of Education at its meeting next week.

— E-mail: cneff@register-herald.com


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