West Virginia Seizes Control Of Its Third School District

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The West Virginia board of education took control of a local school system early this month, declaring that the Lincoln County district had made insufficient progress toward correcting major problems cited in a report last October.

The June 8 takeover marks the third time the state has intervened in the operation of local district.

West Virginia officials said that financial and hiring practices, curriculum and instruction, and facilities in the rural, 4,100-student district remained deficient, despite improvements made in the past seven months after a state agency report triggered help from education department consultants. Lincoln's per-capita income is the fourth-lowest among the state's 55 counties, and one of the 100 lowest in the nation.

"It is always difficult to make this decision to intervene in the operation of a school system," state board President Cleo P. Matthews said in a written statement. "But we believe this is necessary to bring high standards and quality education to the system."

Under the state's takeover law, the board removed all major decisions from the hands of the five-member local school board. State Superintendent David Stewart also ousted district Superintendent Peggy Adkins and named as her replacement William K. Grizzell, the superintendent of West Virginia's Nicholas County district, effective July 1. Ms. Adkins was reassigned to her former position as the principal of one of Lincoln County's four high schools.

Rate of Improvement

District officials defended their work last week, citing improvements in student test scores, a drop in the number of teacher grievances, and a new facilities plan.

"We made great progress under [Ms. Adkins'] superintendency, but we couldn't do it quick enough" for the state, said Charles McCann, a 36-year veteran of the system who has also served as its superintendent. Mr. McCann oversaw hiring for the system, an area that came in for heavy criticism in the October report and again in the follow-up report.

"We found a lot of issues with personnel selection, assessment, and the use of interim positions—what appeared to us as a subversion of the personnel laws of the state," said Kenna Seal, the executive director of the state's Education Performance Audits Office. Officials of the 2-year-old office, which conducts school districts' accreditation audits, visited Lincoln County before its normally scheduled time at the direction of the state school board, which had received many complaints about the system, Mr. Seal said.

He added that the May visit revealed additional sloppy bookkeeping practices, while problems with curriculum, such as the lack of Advanced Placement courses, had not been corrected.

Educators and education advocates generally welcomed the takeover.

"When I heard the takeover had happened, I cried with relief," said Anita Mitter, who represents Lincoln County teachers for the West Virginia Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union and a National Education Association affiliate. "The main thing we have to do is get the politics out of the school system."

Linda Martin, the education coordinator of Challenge West Virginia, a statewide group that supports small, community schools, agreed. "We're hopeful because it couldn't have gotten worse," she said. "Lincoln County has been the pits for years."

The 1982 school finance ruling by state Judge Arthur M. Recht that has prompted almost two decades of efforts to improve West Virginia schools arose from a case filed on behalf of Lincoln County students.

Daniel F. Hedges, a lawyer for the students who is continuing to push for an elimination of state funding disparities, agreed with Ms. Martin. But he added that the state was to blame for many of the troubles.

For example, the state has balked at the district's proposals to keep any of its four small high schools open, refusing to pay for renovations and instead offering money only for a single new school, Mr. Hedges said. In the meantime, he added, operating the four, increasingly run-down schools has proved to be a costly and wasteful proposition.

"Everybody has the right to complain about what was delivered out there ... but the district does have the worst facility configuration in the state," he said.

Hoping in part to stave off the takeover, the district board adopted a plan calling for a single high school on June 5.

The state board last intervened in a district's operation in 1998, when it took control of most functions in Mingo County, to the south of Lincoln on the Kentucky border. The board also forced a takeover in adjacent Logan County in 1992, but returned full control there in 1996.

Vol. 19, Issue 41, Page 22

Published in Print: June 21, 2000, as West Virginia Seizes Control Of Its Third School District
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