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W.Va. Case Tests State's Power Over Consolidation

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The West Virginia Supreme Court this week is scheduled to hear arguments in a case that could be a key test of the state's power to push school consolidations over the objections of rural school districts.

Monroe County school officials are suing the state in an attempt to keep $8 million given to the district by the School Building Authority, a state agency that funds school facilities.

The county received the funds after the school board promised to use the grant to consolidate two high schools into a single, 650-student facility.

New board members elected this spring objected to the plan, however, deciding instead to file suit in order to keep the funds for renovating existing buildings.

Some 80 percent of Monroe residents oppose consolidation, according to Kyle Baker, the president of the school board.

The location of the merged school would be far from most parents' workplaces, he argued, and would force long, hazardous commutes over mountain roads.

"The state superintendent and the powers that be seem to think what's good for one area of the state is good for all areas,'' Mr. Baker said.

'An Emotional Issue'

Monroe is one of a number of counties in the state that are fighting to keep funds intended for school consolidations.

While consolidations have been going on for the past two decades, as West Virginia's population has declined, the pace has quickened since passage of comprehensive state reforms in 1989. The reforms sought to focus more attention on improving school facilities by establishing the S.B.A., a 10-member panel, to award state funds on a competitive basis for improvements and renovations.

The authority's guidelines favor districts whose plans call for making adequate use of space in light of enrollment projections and building centrally located facilities--in practice, consolidated schools.

Since the S.B.A. was created, 21 school consolidations have taken place in the state's 55 counties. The state board also has authorized the closing of 150 schools, reducing costs by more than $30 million.

While consolidation creates tradeoffs, such as longer travel times, it also helps to reduce costs in the face of declining revenues, said Clacy Williams, a spokesman for the authority.

"Closing schools is an emotional issue,'' he observed. "Sometimes we lose sight of what we need to do, but in the long run, we've improved the education of our students.''

State Superintendent of Schools Henry Marockie also emphasized the state's declining population base and the need to provide better-organized units for existing students.

"It's not a transportation issue, it's about education,'' he said.

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