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W.Va. board agrees to close three Wood County schools

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Board of Education has approved a plan to close three Wood County elementary schools in the spring of 2020.

At the state board’s regular meeting Wednesday in Charleston, members voted 7-1 to approve the closure of McKinley and Worthington elementary schools in Parkersburg and Waverly Elementary School in Waverly at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

The vote followed two hours of public comments and a presentation by Wood County Schools Superintendent Will Hosaflook. The Wood County Board of Education last month completed seven consolidation and merger hearings at the three schools and four other schools which would be affected in the mergers.

State board members emphasized the vote Wednesday was not on the schools themselves, but whether the consolidation and merger process was properly handled by Wood County Schools.

“We would rather not be in this position, but we’re in it,” said state board President David Perry. “It would appear that the Wood County Board of Education has gone above and beyond to inform the public, and they intend to do that in the future.”

“It is heartbreaking to even think about closing a school,” said board member Debra Sullivan. “A school is a living being. It’s not a building, it’s the people, it’s the relationships and therefore it cannot be dealt with lightly.

“I dread these meetings” on school closures, she said. “Sometimes it’s crystal clear what needs to be done. Other times, like today, what is the necessary thing is maybe not what is the right thing.”

Miller Hall, vice president of the state board, was the lone vote against the closure plan. While asking questions during Hosaflook’s presentation, Hall indicated concerns the closures would displace students and make them feel less confident.

“There is always an issue of trust,” he said.

State board member Thomas Campbell, who served in the state House of Delegates for 16 years prior to being appointed to the school board, argued the current financial crisis faced by Wood County Schools and other school systems is due to a faulty funding system created by the state Legislature.

“The reason we are in this room, in my opinion, is because of our state code which has been put together over decades,” Campbell said. “Our state code basically says our priority, in my opinion, is a low-cost education based upon economies of scale.”

Campbell said the state’s current funding model was developed in the 1950s and 1960s and does not reflect social and economic changes over the past 50 years.

“It’s based on, in my opinion, a society that no longer exists,” he said. “If there is not a change in funding, we’re going to see every county in here every year.

“If you don’t have the money, you need to do what you need to do.”

Wood County Schools officials said the system is facing a financial crisis and could run out of savings in a little more than a year if no changes are made.

“If these closures and consolidations do not move forward, I cannot fix the schools,” Hosaflook said. “We will have zero carryover (funding) if we do not take serious action.”

Wood County Board of Education President Rick Olcott and board member Justin Raber spoke in favor of the consolidation plan, saying it came about after a great deal of research, debate and consideration.

“Closing schools is not the desired strategy, but it is essential,” Olcott said.

Tommy Young, state executive director of school facilities and transportation, recommended the plan be approved, and said he toured sites and rode buses in Wood County.

Critics of the plan have repeatedly said some students will face bus rides of 45 minutes or longer and could be stuck on buses for upwards of two hours a day depending on traffic. Young disagreed, saying the routes he rode took between 14-32 minutes even with poor visibility and additional stops.

“I was satisfied with those routes,” he said.

Opponents of the closures also argued the board had erred in recessing its final consolidation meeting Oct. 2 prior to voting on Waverly Elementary. The meeting was reconvened Oct. 23 in order to allow more time for written public comment after a typo expanded that window to Oct. 22. The board voted Oct. 23 to close Waverly.

State general counsel Heather Hutchens said she felt the Wood County Board of Education had met all of the requirements of state code when handling the consolidation process.

A half-dozen members of the public addressed the board prior to the vote, arguing against closing Waverly Elementary and saying the closure would be detrimental to its students and the community as a whole. A few people also spoke on behalf of Worthington Elementary, reiterating concerns of overcrowding at Emerson Elementary School which will receive Worthington students and whether students with special needs would receive proper services.

Fred Clark, a Charleston businessman with ties to the Waverly community and who has been a vocal advocate of the school, said prior to the meeting he intends to file a lawsuit to stop the closing of Waverly. In a draft of the lawsuit, Clark says the school board violated state law when it delayed a vote on the closure of the school. The suit also alleges bus route times which violate state law and a reduction in services for Waverly students.

The lawsuit, which would be filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court, would seek an injunction against the closing of Waverly school. The other two schools would not be included in the suit, Clark said.

Hosaflook said the three closures approved Wednesday are only the first step in an ongoing process to “right-size” the district, which has lost 2,500 students since 2001 but still maintains 28 schools, 19 of which are elementary schools.

Hosaflook said a committee is working on the district’s next 10-year facilities plan, which will include the closure of Franklin and Fairplains elementary schools in south Parkersburg and closure of Van Devender Middle School in north Parkersburg.

Hosaflook said the school system also will look at closing Neale Elementary School in Vienna and adjusting attendance zones for schools throughout the process. No timeline was given for the additional closures.

“The last thing I want to do is close a school,” Hosaflook said, but “we have to be fiscally responsible.”

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