Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia officially took control last week of the state panel that oversees school construction in his state, signaling that he intends to reverse policies that have forced more than 200 schools to close since 1990.
The Democrat, elected last November, chaired his first meeting of the state’s School Building Authority here on April 4, and used the occasion to speak his mind on how school consolidations have hurt small, rural communities in West Virginia. He also persuaded the SBA to delay a rural school construction project that would combine several campuses in rural Mingo County.
“I will make sure we are not using the bloody hammer of the pocketbook of the SBA” to consolidate more rural schools, the governor said in an April 1 interview at the state Capitol. Instead, Gov. Manchin said, he favors “preserving of the rural schools wherever and whenever possible.”
Changing the longtime direction of West Virginia policy will not be easy. Gov. Manchin announced legislation several weeks ago to end long school bus rides for many rural students—only to see the plan amended by the Democratic-controlled legislature.
By last week, lawmakers had amended the bus-ride bill to call for a one-year study of the problem before any restriction was put into place.
Gov. Manchin’s bus-ride plan would have restricted one-way trips to 30 minutes for students in elementary school, 45 minutes for middle school, and an hour for high school. The legislation would have allowed school districts to request waivers from the state board of education and the SBA.
Meanwhile, two court battles also continue that could allow or prohibit more school consolidations in West Virginia.
In contrast to the governor’s stance, some SBA board members argued last week that their work has done far more to help students in the Mountain State than hurt them, in part because many campuses have been modernized.
Gov. Manchin and his advisers are choosing their words carefully as they aim to engineer a major shift in long-term state policy.
“He’s not anti-consolidation,” said Lara Ramsburg, the governor’s press secretary. “He’s pro-small community schools.”
As part of a broader effort to strengthen his oversight of state agencies with bonding authority, Gov. Manchin called the legislature into special session in January, a week after his inauguration, to approve a bill giving him more control over the School Building Authority and several other state commissions with bonding authority.
Lawmakers passed the plan, and Gov. Manchin, or his designee, now chairs the SBA, which was created by the legislature in 1989.
The SBA governs state funding for school construction and generally has made its approval of projects dependent on consolidation. A key reason for the SBA’s strategy is that public school enrollment has declined sharply in this state over the past 45 years—from 460,000 students in 1960 to fewer than 280,000 today.
SBA board members contend that students and educators are benefiting from more than $200 million that has been spent on school construction since 1990. Closing tiny schools simply makes good financial sense in many cases, said Clacy Williams, the SBA’s executive director. “I think our board has done a tremendous job over the years trying to evaluate projects,” he said.
State Superintendent of Education David Stewart, who will retire this year, also defended the SBA. “Seventy-five percent of the schools in the state now are new or renovated,” he said. “Most of the consolidation has occurred already. The debate now is what the future should look like.”
Gov. Manchin and advocates for rural schools argue, however, that closing schools, except when absolutely necessary, has failed to save money or provide more academic offerings, and has hindered any chances for rural economies to improve.
The governor said he has seen the impact of school consolidation himself in his hometown of Farmington, W.Va. Consolidation “just about shut down five rural communities” in the area, he said, adding that he had received “a very good education” there.
Mr. Manchin also suggested that he would seek more school construction funding for growing counties in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, which are within commuting distance of the Baltimore and Washington outer suburbs.
The battle over school consolidations in West Virginia has raged on for years. The state supreme court is set to rule this year in a lawsuit brought by rural Lincoln County residents who sued the state over a plan to merge local public schools.
In Mingo County, newly elected school board members have sued the state board of education over its recent takeover of the 4,800-student district. The new Mingo board members allege the state board took control of the district to keep alive a construction plan that the former Mingo County school board had backed. Hearings in that case are scheduled to begin next month.
And Gov. Manchin is not the first West Virginia chief executive to try to slow school consolidations.
In January of last year, Gov. Bob Wise, also a Democrat, argued for a change in direction on school consolidation in his State of the State Address. But his bill to place moderate restrictions on school bus rides—which would have helped insulate communities from forced consolidation—failed to find legislators’ favor. (“W. Va. Eyes Softer Stand On School Mergers,” Feb. 4, 2004.)
Linda Martin, the executive director of Challenge West Virginia, has fought to keep small rural schools open across her state since the mid-1990s. She and her 24 county chapters have organized rural citizens against SBA policies.
Though Ms. Martin is hopeful, she plans to keep a watchful eye on Gov. Manchin and other state officials who say they want change. “We don’t trust any of them until the action is taken,” she said. (“Rural Activists Note The Highs and Lows of School Advocacy,” April 13, 2005.)
The governor chaired his first SBA meeting April 4 at the SBA’s headquarters in an old, Spanish-style mansion along the Kanawha River. Mr. Manchin sat at the end of a long table in a room jammed with onlookers.
With the SBA set to approve plans for a new school that would merge four existing campuses in Mingo County, Mr. Manchin showed his frustration with the board’s strategies. “For some reason, we have to tear it down and start over every time,” he said of rural schools in the state.
SBA board member Connie Perry noted the many new schools the panel has approved. When the SBA began its work 15 years ago, “there were schools you wouldn’t put a prisoner in,” she said.
Still, she and other board members sided with Gov. Manchin on delaying a vote on the Mingo County project until June. But state education board members who also serve on the 11-member SBA board wanted to move forward anyway.
“I’m concerned about the signal it might send [to delay the project],” said Sandra Chapman, one of the state school board members. “We’ve heard extensively about the children and the needs in that county.”
But Gov. Manchin, who persuaded the SBA board that it should put the vote off, scored his first real victory against school consolidation when Mr. Williams withdrew his proposal to move forward with the Mingo County vote.
“I think it’s important that nobody read too much into what just happened,” insisted SBA board member James McHugh.
Gov. Manchin, though, might be just getting started.