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Published in Print: April 10, 2002, as School Merger Foes Rallying In West Virginia

School Merger Foes Rallying In West Virginia

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By the looks of things, Circleville High School is open for business.

The American flag waves atop the pole out front. Snow falls on a row of yellow school buses parked on the slick asphalt. The stately, two-story brick building may be the prettiest man-made thing in this county of mountains and the clear- as-dew South Fork of the Potomac River that flows right by.

Then, Dorothy Bennett takes you inside, and you know why she and others from Circleville took the state of West Virginia to court. The state shut down their school.

Circleville High School is one of 325 schools, most of them high schools, that the state has closed since 1990 in a push to consolidate small schools. It's a recurring story in states with mostly rural populations. With concern growing that elementary schools are next, however, residents of the Mountain State are stepping up their fights against forced mergers.

The political winds around the issue may be shifting as well, with the impending retirement of a longtime legislative advocate of consolidation.

For now, Ms. Bennett is left with the bittersweet images of her former school in Pendleton County.

Dust has fallen thick on the hardwood floor of the gym, where she and just about everyone else in this Appalachian town walked on their graduation days. A wooden balcony wraps around the basketball floor; the crowds really raised the roof in here, they say. The library shelves still hold hundreds, maybe a couple of thousand books that students somewhere could use.

Trophy cases are stocked full of prizes that date back almost to 1939, when the school opened. Bulletin boards show the students of the month, even though the school was shut down four years ago.

"This is my first trip in here since they kicked us out," said Ms. Bennett, who otherwise seemed jolly. "It's a dirty-dog shame."

The Crash

In just about every county in West Virginia, governors and legislators in distant Charleston have forced schools to shut their doors. While Circleville, in Pendleton County, has many cousins in states like Nebraska, Arkansas, and the Dakotas, few states have beaten a path to school consolidation faster than West Virginia.

The closing of the state's most remote schools, where populations are dwindling, is inevitable, state officials contend. By combining schools, the state can stretch construction money while offering students new schools, more classes—and better ones.

In 1960, the state enrolled more than 460,000 children in the K-12 public schools. That number has dwindled by no fewer than 30,000 in every decade since then, and dropped to about 281,000 last year after enrollment fell by nearly 9,000 students statewide in that year alone.

In response to that trend, and to upgrade the remaining schools, the legislature established the West Virginia School Building Authority in 1989. The agency and its 10-member board disburses state money for school buildings. Since most counties have small populations and little ability to build schools on their own, the state does it for them.

But the anti-consolidation people say the system does as much harm as good.

"It's rigged to coerce consolidation," said Robert M. Bastress, a professor at the West Virginia University law school in Morgantown. He argued the Pendleton County case before the state supreme court. His wife, Barbara Fleischaur, a Democratic member of the state House of Delegates, has introduced legislation to change how the school building authority decides to spend its money, in a way that would not necessarily force mergers.

Clacy E. Williams, the executive director of the building authority and a former county-level superintendent, defends the agency's approach. His agency has helped build 97 schools across the state since 1990, and not all of them have required consolidation, he said.

"Our legislature is trying to optimize the educational opportunities in this state," Mr. Williams said. "It's a matter of economics."

Fighting Back

The issue has rankled rural people statewide for years, but only recently have residents in every county begun to organize and fight what they see as a threat.

Linda Martin, the executive director of Challenge West Virginia, has lobbied for 20 years for better rural schools and the preservation of small ones. Her Charleston-based group is training volunteers in 22 rural counties to stop school consolidation.

People in several counties have successfully fought off consolidation in the past year, giving Ms. Martin reasons to believe her fight isn't in vain.

Besides, she has many arguments against consolidation. West Virginia now spends $130 million a year on school transportation, not including bus drivers' salaries, she said. That was the highest rate in the nation for each student and every mile, according to the fall 1996 issue of the West Virginia Law Review.

Plus, there's no evidence that consolidation has improved academics, Ms. Martin contends. In fact, students find it harder to participate in sports and other activities if they must travel farther from home for school, she said.

"It doesn't save money, and we didn't get additional courses," Ms. Martin said. "West Virginia spends $8,000 per student, yet many of our elementary schools don't have art or music. The money goes to this tremendous increase for transporting children. Technology can bring anything we need to our children."

Consolidation foes got new ammunition for their fight in January—in the form of bruises and broken bones.

It was icy that day along U.S. Highway 33, the two-lane route that scales the 3,000-foot North Mountain between Circleville and the county seat of Franklin, the home of the new Pendleton County High School. The brick box of a school sits where the old Franklin school stood before it was demolished.

A school bus carrying students between the consolidated school and their valley homes careened up an embankment, avoiding a head-on disaster with a tractor-trailer truck. Ten students were hurt. Ironically, when the state supreme court upheld the consolidation in Pendleton County in 1997, the court ruled that the method was viable unless it submitted students to actual harm.

But the anti- consolidation activists in West Virginia have decided not to return to court on that point. Fearing they would lose another court battle, they've set their sights on the state Capitol in Charleston instead. They hope the bus crash will be another reason for lawmakers to quash or at least slow consolidation.

Their hopes center on legislation that would require the school building authority to consider safety issues and the education of children as heavily as it does economic factors when it builds new schools. The bill has been held up in committee repeatedly in recent years, including the current session. Mr. Williams of the building authority dismisses the bill, saying the authority's board already considers those factors.

Still, Ms. Martin won't give up. Spurred by the coming retirement, after fall elections, of Sen. Lloyd G. Jackson II, the Democratic chairman of the Senate education committee, she said there's reason to believe the legislation could pass next year and usher in a more restrained approach to consolidation.

"We know a majority of people want their children to attend school in the community where they live," Ms. Martin said. "We have to win this politically."

Better Off?

In Circleville, Ms. Bennett and other citizens were so hurt that leaders from across their county didn't support keeping their school open, they decided to secede.

Instead of sending their children 20 miles over the mountain to the consolidated school, dozens of Pendleton County parents choose to send them to the town of Petersburg in Grant County, where they say the students will fare better.

They started their own private bus system to provide the 40-minute ride.

Every morning, Ms. Bennett's husband, Fay, boards the bus and carries about 30 students to Petersburg High School. About $170,000 in state funding travels with those bus riders and the dozens of others who find their own rides into Grant County—money that could go to Pendleton County schools.

Because their communities are so rural, state policy allows the children to attend schools in neighboring counties without paying tuition.

Ken Price, the last principal at Circleville High School, is now the Pendleton County schools superintendent. Sitting in his second-floor office in Franklin, next door to the county courthouse, Mr. Price explains why his district decided to close Circleville's local school, which had about 252 students. "The only way you could get money to build was to consolidate," he said.

The schools in the 1,300-student district needed repair. Local money wasn't an option. In a county with about 8,000 residents, and only home-owned businesses, the tax base couldn't raise enough money to build half a school. Circleville, strong and imposing a school as it was, didn't meet modern-day safety codes.

"The fire marshal, the only reason he allowed school to continue there was that he knew we were going to rebuild," Mr. Price said.

The superintendent would have supported building a new K-12 school in Circleville. The district hasn't saved much money by consolidating its schools, he said. The district spends $900,000 of its $9 million budget on transportation.

In the end, the state paid for a new, single-story brick building, which serves 4-year-olds through 6th graders, behind the old Circleville School. The new North Fork Elementary School serves 140 students.

Gone with the old school, Mr. Price admits, are the sports teams anyone could join. The one-on-one attention Circleville's older students received was remarkable, he adds. Parents find it harder to be as deeply involved in their children's education, now that they have to make the half-hour drive across the mountain.

But Mr. Price contends that students have gained some things, too. The roughly 587 students at Pendleton County High are able to take more advanced math courses. They meet more youngsters their age. And they can join a full-size band or choir.

"The kids are fine. The parents and grandparents aren't so fine, and probably never will be," Mr. Price said.

"There were a lot of really neat things about Circleville," he added, but "we're better off than we were."

Back in here Circleville, he'd have a hard time convincing Ms. Bennett and her neighbors.

In another twist to this town's consolidation battle, the state has granted Circleville $300,000 to fix up the old school—so it can be used for a community center. Volunteers hope to have the place ready for a town reunion next spring, to celebrate new life for a school with such a vivid past.

Vol. 21, Issue 30, Pages 1,18-19

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Correction: 
Circleville High School was shut down in 1999.

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