After an exhaustive reporting effort by staff writer Jennifer Biller and a week's worth of articles, this much is painfully clear: School consolidation ought to be a last resort in West Virginia, but in reality it's the first resort.
Who suffers? The same young people so many state officials are so fond of saying are "our future."
If state lawmakers really care about "our future," maybe we ought to think long and hard about our past.
Today, the state has about 354 students per public school. In 1960, West Virginia had about 164 kids to a school.
Really, now, how can twice as many students per school be a better thing?
In Walkersville, in Wallace ... all over the place, really ... abandoned schools are crumbling, and many kids make long, boring bus trips to attend classes.
Sure, the new consolidated schools can have some great features like neat science labs, lots of high-tech equipment and excellent teachers. But no way do they, or can they, have the same wonderful sense of community as the smaller, older schools.
That is a vital part of education -- and life -- that too often is overlooked today.
That said, lawmakers should study alternative ways to fund schools.
Maybe school districts that perform better than others, for example, ought to get more money from the School Building Authority, even if it is simply to build several new small schools instead of one new large one.
Lawmakers also ought to consider scrapping raising school funds through property taxes.
First, only landowners pay this tax. People who rent don't, even though they send their kids to school, too.
Mainly, though, every kid in West Virginia ought to have an equal opportunity toward a great education. The way it stands now, kids in more affluent counties often tend to get better educations because the property tax base is much higher.
Legislators need to come up with a way to collect an equal tax from everyone in the state, then distribute the money evenly without it degenerating into pork-barrel politics.
Right now, the biggest schools get most of our tax dollars, while smaller ones usually get the wrecking ball. As the state careens toward the very likely -- and ugly -- possibility of regional schools with students crossing county lines, it's time for lawmakers to act.
We need smaller schools and more of a sense of community in these very trying times, instead of sprawling monoliths that very easily could become a melting pot for mediocrity.
State residents must demand much-needed change.