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More school closings on the horizon

by Jennifer Biller

STAFF WRITER

CLARKSBURG -- There's a saying in education called "economies of scale." To those in the business it's a term bandied as one explanation for school consolidation.

To parent Lori Stout and others who are losing their community schools, it doesn't mean much.

Stout lives in Doddridge County, where her children attend Greenbrier Elementary School. Next year, it and three other elementaries will be closed. The schools will be consolidated into a new Doddridge County Elementary School.

"I don't like the idea of the school closing there. It's like a family," Stout said.

"My daughter Jessica is battling cancer and is below her normal size. At the school now, all the kids and teachers look after her like family," Stout said. "So, I'm concerned how she'll do next year at the bigger school."

Doddridge County Superintendent Jeff Moss said he understands parents' concerns.

"In most rural school systems, if money were available to operate small schools they would be kept, but the resources aren't there so we have to move ahead," Moss said.

"The decisions being made are all predicated on the state's economy," Moss said. "We're losing students, and we're losing tax base."

Closing quality schools

Doddridge County isn't alone in its consolidation efforts.

Across the state during the next eight years, 151 small schools will be closed and 100 consolidated schools will be built, according to School Building Authority records.

The majority of the closures are to be elementary schools.

At some of the schools slated for closure, students have top-notch test scores, excellent attendance and a large percentage qualify for free or reduced lunches. So despite socio-economic challenges, the students are performing well.

Among the quality schools that could be closed in the next eight years in this region are: Adamston Elementary, named as one of the 2001 National Schools of Excellence, and Norwood and Polk Creek elementaries, both recognized as West Virginia Exemplary Schools.

Adamston Principal James Eakle hopes plans to close his school will change.

"I'm sad, but optimistic that the community will maintain the school," he said. "Clarksburg has only two elementary schools left within the city limits -- Adamston and North View."

Deciding which schools to close

The School Building Authority -- the agency in charge of distributing state money for new and renovated schools -- asks county boards to examine their long-term facilities plans every 10 years. The plans are updated annually, to reflect changes that may occur in local demographics and economics.

In 1999, the counties completed their 10-year Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plans. They formed committees to evaluate the existing schools and determine which would be kept, closed or renovated.

The committees included board members and administrators, students, teachers, parents and members of the community.

However, some felt an agenda for closures and consolidation was already set, said Linda Martin, coordinator for Challenge West Virginia, a statewide organization working to maintain small schools and reform education policy.

"Many of us tried to participate in the comprehensive facilities planning process, but try as we might the message was clear," Martin said. "If you don't consolidate schools, the state will not give you money."

Martin's group commissioned a study on the facilities planning process. The study examined citizen participation in five counties and found it to be inadequate. The plans do not truly represent the public's desires, Martin said. The study was published this year and titled, "If This Is Democracy, Then I Missed The Bus."

Parent Beth McCaugherty was part of the committee who created the Harrison County plan. She said they did discuss each of the schools, enrollment trends, buildings maintenance needs, locations and transportation issues.

"We did have opportunities for input, but I'm not sure how seriously our input was considered," she said. "We did state concerns about consolidation in some communities."

Why consolidation?

Dr. Clacy Williams, executive director of the SBA, contends consolidation is a result of the enrollment decline in the state.

"Only when the community dies and there are no kids to attend, do the schools leave," Williams said. "You have to look at student population. When the cost per pupil becomes too expensive, that's when they have to look at closing the buildings."

The way schools are funded by the state forces counties to consolidate, some educators say. Schools are funded based on enrollment numbers.

Those numbers paint a grim picture of what's happening in West Virginia. From 1990 to 2000, the state lost 33,028 students, according to SBA records. In just the past two years, enrollment has declined by 8,704, records show.

It's a startling fact for those looking at enrollment projections and trying to make decisions on school facilities.

"Given the nature of the school aid fund formula, it's almost mandated consolidation," Moss said. "We don't have any choice."

Closing schools and consolidating into larger ones isn't the answer, said Dr. Craig Howley, a researcher at Ohio University and former West Virginia resident who has studied consolidation.

Schools have become too large, and poor students are the ones who suffer, Howley said. He has published a document to help rural communities and educators in their long-term plans. The work is titled "School Size: Things You Need to Know to Make Better Decisions."

Keeping schools open

Randolph County will not be closing any schools in the next eight years, according to its 10-year plan.

"Maintaining schools is not the easiest thing, but so far we've been able to do it," said Superintendent Glen Karlen Jr.

His county is large and the schools are far apart. That is an advantage when it comes to keeping small schools, he said.

"Pickens Elementary has 39 students, but it's 25 miles to the nearest school," he said. "That's what we're dealing with here. Because of the geographic locations of these schools it's hard to bus kids, compared to Harrison County where schools are closer."

Martin challenges school boards to consider other options instead of consolidation.

"I think many school board members know that consolidation isn't working, but they are afraid to take on the state Department of Education," she said. "The local school boards are not representing the parents, students and community."

Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or by e-mail at jbiller@exponent-telegram.com

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