Published Online: February 21, 2006
Published in Print: February 22, 2006, as West Virginians Could Get More Say Over School Mergers

West Virginians Could Get More Say Over School Mergers

Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia has endorsed a plan in the legislature that would give citizens a powerful new voice in determining whether schools in their communities consolidate.

The legislation, House Bill 4040, is under consideration by the Senate after passing the House on Jan. 19. It would require school boards to hold countywide votes before school boards could decide to close some elementary and middle schools and move the children to another facility.

West Virginia, like other states with dropping student enrollments, has seen scores of school closures—nearly 300 over the past 15 years. Some of those schools were merged with other school buildings. In other cases, new schools have been built to bring together the students from several older, smaller facilities.

Closing schools has been an emotional and controversial process in some areas of West Virginia. Schools are often centers of life in rural communities, and local residents say they often have little input in decisions to close them.

“I have always supported the concept of allowing the people of a community to be able to vote on what happens in that community,” Gov. Manchin, a Democrat, said in a statement last week.

He added: “These younger children are the ones who benefit most from smaller schools and shorter bus rides. It is a fair and reasonable bill, and I hope to have the opportunity to sign it.”

The bill would exempt some consolidation decisions from a countywide vote. For instance, consolidations previously approved by local school boards could go through, as well as such decisions driven by fires, floods, or other natural disasters.

Schools with 12 or fewer students in each grade would also be exempt from a countywide vote and could be forced to close.

In addition, local residents wanting to force a vote on a consolidation decision would have to gather signatures from 20 percent of the registered voters in the county before the question could be put on the ballot.

Adding Another Layer?

State Delegate Larry A. Williams, the vice chairman of the House education committee and one of the bill’s sponsors, said those conditions were added to ensure that only consolidation decisions that were truly controversial would go to the voters. Otherwise, they could go forward at the direction of local school boards.

The School Building Authority, a state agency that governs funding for school construction, has usually made consolidation a condition of granting funds. State officials have said that the process is necessary because of the state’s dropping enrollment—from more than 460,000 public school students in 1960 to fewer than 280,000 today. ("West Virginia Governor Cool to School Consolidation," April 13, 2005.)

But Mr. Williams, a Democrat, said he’d rather see state money go to maintain small community schools than to pay the higher costs of transporting students to a central location, “where you have nothing to show for it but fumes.”

Consolidation Trends

The number of K-12 schools in West Virginia declined sharply from the 1989-90 to the 2005-06 school year, at least in part because of state policies that encourage the closing or consolidation of small schools.

A former school board member for 16 years, Mr. Williams said he has seen the number of high schools in his home community of Preston County drop from nine to one. The county’s school enrollment stands at about 4,700, compared with about 4,900 five years ago.

The pending bill is just the most recent attempt to put the brakes on school consolidation in West Virginia.

Last year, in an effort to keep more smaller schools open, Gov. Manchin proposed a bill to limit how long students could spend on bus rides. The bill would have mandated that elementary pupils could spend, on average, only 30 minutes on a bus, middle school students 45 minutes, and high school students an hour one way to school.

That bill died in committee and was replaced with a bill to study bus travel times. The new bill, HB 4040, is closer to what people would really like to see, Mr. Williams said.

Howard M. O’Cull, the executive director of the West Virginia School Board Association, said members of his group would meet soon to discuss the proposal.

“I think the sentiment will be to oppose it, but we will have to have discussion,” he said. One concern of the group is the financial impact from what could be frequent elections.

Another concern is that the bill would add another step to what Mr. O’Cull considers an already comprehensive process. “There are extensive processes for closing schools. This adds another layer to things,” he said.

“Not only is it not easy to close a school,” Mr. O’Cull said, “but most school board members abhor that, because they get thrown out of office.”

Vol. 25, Issue 24, Page 28

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