School & District Management

School Facilities Fuel State-Local Tensions in W.Va. District

By Daarel Burnette II — December 08, 2015 | Corrected: December 10, 2015 7 min read
Terry George, the state-appointed school superintendent in Fayette County, stands next to the broken furnace and a coal bin sprinkled with asbestos chips. A controversial school consolidation plan would shutter some schools and include a new $56 million high school.

Corrected: The original version of this story misidentified who hires the state superintendent. The state’s board of education hires the superintendent.

After losing half their school system’s K-12 students over a period of decades, residents of Fayette County, in the heart of this state’s coal country, have long been fighting over which schools to close and which would get new facilities.

So Michael Martirano, who took over as West Virginia’s state superintendent in 2014, decided to solve the problem himself by proposing a plan that would shutter seven of the district’s 18 schools and move most of its high school students into a new, $56 million facility.

Because the district’s academic resources are spread so thinly throughout the 600-square-mile county, students are failing state tests at an alarming rate, he said, and the outdated facilities, more than a half-century old, are at risk of caving in. Last winter, an engineer deemed many of the schools too hazardous for use, prompting the state to condemn parts of elementary and middle schools, some of which are still heated by coal.

But Martirano has faced intense pushback from citizens of the county who say the state is attempting to fracture its tight-knit communities, send students on hours-long bus rides to unfamiliar neighborhoods, and saddle its taxpayers, mostly elderly and on fixed incomes, with a 15-year, $11 million loan they didn’t ask for. A state agency that will vote next week on whether to help fund the plan has also expressed reluctance to support Martirano’s proposal.

Students walk between classes at Collins Middle School in Fayette County, W.Va. The orange fencing stands between them and a building that closed in January because it was deemed unsafe for student occupancy. Similar closures have sparked debate in the county.

“The people have not been listened to and they’re very frustrated—and they should be,” said Tom Campbell, a state board member who voted against the plan, and also a member of the state’s School Building Authority. “The way education is done in West Virginia is a few people in [the state capital of] Charleston say, ‘This is the way it’s going to be, and that’s the way it’s going to be.’ ... This is a recipe for disaster.”

The intractable and politically fraught power struggle between state officials and citizens in Fayette County highlights the challenges state superintendents face when they try to wrest control from local politicians to turn around ailing districts.

State superintendents in New Jersey, Michigan, Louisiana, and Tennessee, for example, have taken control of failing urban schools over the years, either running them directly or handing them over to charter school operators, a process that’s faced heavy criticism from local community groups and been described as undemocratic and ineffective. Such conflicts also crop up when school leaders seek to shut down underenrolled buildings that matter greatly to local communities.

While some superintendents attempt to work with local politicians to devise a plan everyone can agree on, Martirano says the roughly 6,000 students in Fayette County can’t wait.

“There is a crisis in that county that needs to be addressed,” said Martirano. “This, for me, is about social justice and doing the right things for kids.”

Hazardous Conditions

West Virginia’s school board voted in 2009 to seize control of Fayette County after auditors repeatedly found spending and hiring irregularities. The county had fallen on hard economic times, losing more than half its revenue in the past decade after the coal-mining industry collapsed and families left the district in droves.

But unlike many districts that close facilities piecemeal and redraw attendance boundaries as enrollment shrinks, Fayette County’s school board members kept the vast majority of schools open despite the exodus of students.

Today, clumps of asbestos dangle from classroom ceilings, floors visibly sag, and bricks regularly tumble out of walls at a number of schools in the county.

Kickball marks are evident in the coal dust on the gymnasium wall at Ansted Elementary in Fayette County, W.Va. Space heaters, like the one on the wall, have replaced a basement coal furnace in the school.

Across West Virginia, there are five schools still heated by coal, an arduous process that requires maintenance crews to dump 26 buckets of coal into a giant furnace twice a day. Three of those schools are in Fayette County.

At some of the county’s schools, no students passed recent statewide tests in math, according to administrators. Several of the county’s five high schools offer just a handful of Advanced Placement courses.

But things have only gotten worse since the state took over, residents say. Since the state stepped in, four superintendents have been appointed to run the district. “They’ve done nothing in the last five years to help us,” Amanda Skaggs, a mother of three children in the district, said of the state.

In September 2014, Martirano, a longtime Maryland educator who was selected as that state’s 2009 district superintendent of the year, became West Virginia’s schools chief. Many of the challenges that Martirano is trying to address in Fayette are playing out in varying degrees across the state: steep enrollment losses, budget cuts to schools, lagging academics, and decrepit facilities.

In Fayette, prior to Martirano’s current plan to consolidate, local voters overwhelmingly rejected a bond that would have shuttered some schools and built new facilities. Right after, Martirano hired Terry George, Fayette’s fourth state-appointed superintendent, in July. Less than three weeks after being hired, George presented Fayette County with a consolidation plan backed by Martirano that would convert almost all of the district’s high schools into K-8 schools and includes a new $56 million high school. George said he doesn’t need the local school board members’ or community members’ approval since the state runs the district and the plan doesn’t require a tax increase.

Still, it has faced some opposition, much of it from residents in Meadow Bridge, a small town on the south side of the county.

Parents Divided

Parents there allege in a lawsuit that the condition of schools has been grossly exaggerated. “We just want to be left alone,” said Angela Gilkerson, a teacher and mother in Meadow Bridge. She and other parents adamantly oppose the part of the plan that would require their children to travel by school bus for 80 minutes, one-way to get to school.

But a different group of parents say if George’s plan gets final approval, that it will lead to the state finally handing back the reins to local officials and that students will be placed in safer conditions.

While the plan got the greenlight from the state board of education, it has run into trouble with the School Building Authority, a special state entity that governs how state dollars are spent to build new schools.

The agency uses a mix of state sales tax dollars, bonds, and lottery money to dole out facilities funding to school districts, though that money has been cut in half in the last six years because of state budget cutbacks. This year, the building authority only has $54 million to give out and more than $150 million in requests.

In September, the authority attempted to kill the plan, citing the lack of community support and $39 million over three years in state money that the plan calls for, more than three times the average request.

Asbestos lines the ceiling above the coal furnace.

The authority later reversed that move after a group of residents sued. It will take a final vote later this month on whether or not to fund the project.

“It’s complete and utter frustration,” said Shawna Sparks, a mother of five children in the district who supports the plan. “I think there’s a lot of politics involved, which is disgusting to me.”

West Virginia’s school districts have around $3 billion worth of capital improvement needs, according to a 2010 assessment, said David Sneed, the director of the School Building Authority. Taxpayers in the state collectively spend just about $100 million a year on new facilities. While many residents say Fayette County is not being treated fairly, authority officials point out that they have previously given the county $75 million to pay for new facilities, only to be handed back most of the money after local residents and officials couldn’t agree on out how to spend it.

“That money could’ve gone to other districts,” Sneed said.

Shrinking Pot

And while the state superintendent and many residents say the board is rejecting the plan because it’s not supported by a voter-backed bond, none of the proposals before the board this month are attached to bonds, Sneed said.

Fayette’s issues have state officials re-evaluating how they should distribute a shrinking pot of money to build new facilities and how local districts finance projects as maintenance costs start to eat into classroom spending.

Sneed says the building authority is dedicated to helping Fayette.

“If not this time, we’ll figure out a plan authority members feel comfortable with,” Sneed said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as School Facilities Fuel State-Local Tensions in W. Va. District

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