WV Board of Education approves plan to consolidate four Fayette County high schools

By Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter

The West Virginia Board of Education approved a new plan Wednesday to consolidate four Fayette County high schools into a new high school, despite attempts by some board members to stop the closure of Meadow Bridge High School.

Fayette schools Superintendent Terry George said his district will now request funding for the new high school from the state School Building Authority, which will make its decision in December.

He estimated the total cost at $52 million to $58 million, with the county providing 10 percent of that and the SBA, which distributes dollars raised from both state general revenue and lottery funds, picking up the rest of the bill.

If the SBA approves funding, George said he believes the further legally required public school-closure hearings would be held in the fall and the school would assimilate students from the four current high schools at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

Fayette Associate Superintendent Serena Starcher, who served as interim leader of the district before George’s appointment, said state Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano would have to sign off on each school closure before being sent to the state board.

In 2013-14, Meadow Bridge High, located in a more rural area of Fayette on its southern border with Summers County, reported an enrollment of about 175 ninth- through 12th-graders, making it the smallest high school in Fayette County. But it has a loyal group of supporters who consistently travel to state school board meetings in Charleston to speak against closure.

In 2013, the state school board ordered Fayette to remove mention of closing Meadow Bridge High from its 10-year Comprehensive Education Facilities Plan and review that document, but the community group tasked with the job didn’t agree to any changes and the plan to close the school remained — albeit without any mandated time or dedicated funding to do so. Fayette residents who have supported previous attempts to close Meadow Bridge as part of past consolidation plans have accused the state board and Meadow Bridge supporters of trying to preserve the high school at the expense of students who attend other schools.

On Wednesday, board members Tom Campbell, Beverly Kingery and Bill White voted against the new facilities plan presented by George, the former Randolph County school district leader whom Martirano named as Fayette’s superintendent on June 16. The other six voting members — Tina Combs, Michael Green, Lloyd Jackson, Wade Linger, Gayle Manchin and Jim Wilson — voted to approve.

The weekend before George’s appointment, a proposed bond that would have funded the previous plan to close Meadow Bridge High, build a new Collins Middle School and complete other projects received support from only 38 percent of the roughly 25 percent of registered Fayette voters who showed up to the polls in the special election.

Martirano had ordered the closure of Collins Middle’s seventh- and eighth-grade building in January because of structural issues, sending about 400 students to county high schools and fueling the effort to pass a new school bond — something that Fayette voters haven’t approved in more than 40 years. After the bond’s failure, Martirano ordered George to develop a plan to move forward. Martirano said the new plan has his endorsement.

The plan

The plan is to consolidate Fayetteville, Meadow Bridge, Midland Trail and Oak Hill high schools into a new school with about 1,500 to 1,600 students that would be built adjacent to New River Elementary, Oak Hill High and the Fayette Institute of Technology. Valley High, in Smithers, would be the only existing high school preserved.

Collins Middle students would be moved to the Oak Hill High building — one of several grade reconfigurations in schools. George said he doesn’t yet know where the currently displaced Collins Middle students will stay until the Oak Hill High students can move into the new high school.

Meadow Bridge High’s seventh- and eighth-graders would not go to the new high school, which would serve only grades 9-12, but would stay at the Meadow Bridge campus to create a pre-kindergarten- through eighth-grade school. George said part of Meadow Bridge High — where a floor has been condemned — will be shuttered.

George said students would provide input on what the new high school would be named and what mascot would represent it, and the local school board would make the final decision on those topics.

He said Fayette eventually plans to reduce the county’s number of schools from 18 to a dozen. He said annual savings generated will fund preventative maintenance on county structures.

Before the state board took control of Fayette schools from the local board in 2010, a state Office of Education Performance Audits report said the local board was “unwilling to deal with the very small high schools and support a plan to combine some and improve severe facility deficiencies, limited curriculum, and poorly achieving schools.”

Wednesday’s vote came after more than an hour and a half of discussion of the consolidation plan at the regularly scheduled state school board meeting, following a meeting Tuesday evening in Fayette for state board members to hear public comments.

Manchin discussed Wednesday a general need in West Virginia to “blend and blur” county lines — each of the 55 counties has its own school system with its own local school board, but George said his county is working to allow students in the Meadow Bridge area who will have long bus rides in Fayette to instead attend schools in bordering Greenbrier or Summers counties.

Manchin made the first motion to approve the new plan, and Jackson seconded her motion to bring it to a vote. But Campbell, who cited research showing students are better served by smaller schools, moved to amend the plan to prevent Meadow Bridge’s closure, and White seconded his motion.

George said such a move would require him to redo the entire plan before the Oct. 1 deadline for submitting proposed projects for SBA funding this year. He also said he couldn’t foresee the SBA funding the $10.4 million he said is needed to renovate Meadow Bridge.

“We’re running out of facilities to put our students in,” he said. “We need to do something now.”

A tough spot

After board members contemplated tabling the issue for about two weeks, members broke for lunch, returned and approved the plan without changes.

Kingery and Wilson — whom Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin named in January as the most recent additions to the state board — complained that they weren’t given sufficient time to review all documents in the new plan. Kingery said she only received the full new plan on Wednesday of last week, and didn’t have time to review it over the weekend.

Wilson said nobody on the board wanted to vote on the issue.

“Again, I say to the people of Fayette County, shame on you for putting us in this spot,” he said.

Linger said he resented having to make the decision in a short time, but he said he voted to approve the plan to close Meadow Bridge because of the condition of the county’s other facilities. He said it was the hardest vote in his seven years on the board, and he hopes there’s still some way to save the school.

“I think the board was put in a position of having to weigh the benefits to thousands of children compared to a few hundred,” Linger said.

White said the board will be responsible if a child who previously went to Meadow Bridge High is harmed traveling to the new school.

Shirley McGraw, a Meadow Bridge resident who graduated from the high school in 1954, was among several supporters of the school who showed up at Wednesday’s meeting.

“Leave Meadow Bridge alone,” McGraw said after the board’s vote. “I’ll just put it plain. We’re out there in the sticks. Leave Meadow Bridge alone.”

Carolyn Arritt — a former teacher at Meadow Bridge whose father was the principal and whose mother taught there for more than four decades — said the supporters are currently suing to get a second opinion on the condemnation of the high school’s second floor.

At a previous meeting, Shawna Sparks — a mother of four Fayette students, including a son at Collins Middle and three younger children who are to go there — had given state board members photo albums showing the path of dilapidated buildings Collins Middle students must walk through each school day. Leaving the state board room after Wednesday’s vote, she said the new plan means her children will go to safe schools.

“It means we can finally move this county forward,” she said.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.