In McDowell County, W.Va., some teachers showed up late to school; others didn’t show up at all.
Students from time to time were left standing at bus stops because, with drivers out sick, the district had failed to arrange for substitute drivers. Schools sometimes counted those students as “present” to boost the attendance rates.
Students and teachers were photographed smoking on school property. Then there were the dilapidated buildings, with missing ceiling and floor tiles, flooded rooms, burned-out exit signs, and unlocked boiler rooms. School inspectors described the schools as “deplorable, filthy, unsafe, and disgusting for children.”
Considering those scenes and others depicted by state auditors in a recently released, 144-page report, it may come as no surprise that the state of West Virginia has seized control of the 4,600-student McDowell County schools. But in an unusual twist, the takeover came at the request of the district’s own leaders, who acknowledged Nov. 7 that they could no longer handle the job.
“Now that’s a first for us, for a school district to do that,” said Donna Davis, the deputy director of the state Office of Education Performance Audits, who oversaw the inspection of the McDowell County schools last month.
“Without a doubt, it’s the worst audit I’ve ever seen,” she said. “But having the local board ask for intervention, that’s a positive step. Many of the educators have expressed their appreciation because something needed to happen.”
More typically, the threat of a state takeover rallies local school officials to try to turn things around themselves, one national expert in school board politics said.
“Usually, the districts fight state takeover tooth and nail,” said David Griffith, a spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education, based in Alexandria, Va. “This is the first time I have ever heard of this happening.”
Ms. Davis said the district was audited in part because it had been more than three years since its last inspection, and because they had received several tips from state officials that the schools were in trouble.
The West Virginia state board of education voted unanimously Nov. 8 to take over school operations, declaring the district in a state of emergency. The state board stripped the local board of authority in financial matters, personnel, the school calendar, and curriculum. They also removed the district’s interim superintendent.
State schools Superintendent David Stewart named Mark A. Manchin, who will give up his current job as Webster County school superintendent, to be the new McDowell County superintendent. Until Mr. Manchin takes over on Dec. 3, Assistant State Superintendent G.A. McClung will serve as interim superintendent. Mr. Manchin’s contract will end in December of 2005, but the takeover is for an open-ended period of time.
Local education leaders said they see their request for help as a sign of their commitment to the district, rather than something they should be ashamed of.
“We wanted to show cooperation with asking the state to come in,” said Michael Mitchem, a member of the McDowell County school board. “The most important thing is the children. I think it’s going to be better with the state because they’ll bring their resources in.”
The McDowell County schools’ decline has followed the same curve as the county’s plummeting population, local officials say. They say the population has fallen because the backbone of the southern West Virginia area, the coal industry, is ailing.
In the past 20 years, McDowell County has lost 64 percent of its student population.
The decline has been hard on the schools because the state aid formula is based on enrollment. The state pays for 53.5 teachers per 1,000 students. So as population shrank, school buildings were closed and teachers were laid off.
A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Troubled West Virginia District Invites State to Take Over