State BOE postpones consolidation of a Fayette County HS

Oct 10, 2013

The state Board of Education voted to take a year to study the possible the implications of the closure and consolidation of a small Fayette County High School. Meadow Bridge houses students grades 7 through 12 and was set to be closed within the next three years, but the Board’s decision is now forcing the county to reassess that plan and also reassess their upcoming school bond.

Talk of consolidation can be a tricky thing for any county. Whether it comes down to a decreasing school population, aging buildings that can no longer be kept up, or poor rates of student achievement, there are multiple factors at play.

But for Fayette County, it comes down to money.

“Whether we can reduce high schools, the number of high schools or not, we will need to reduce the number of employees we have at the secondary level,” Fayette County Superintendent Keith Butcher told the Board.

Butcher addressed the funding issues the county is facing—issues the county has addressed by planning to consolidate three high schools.

Board members Mike Green, Gayle Manchin, Superintendent James Phares and Board member Robert Dunlevy study a map of Fayette County schools while listening to the concerns of county residents during their October meeting in Charleston.
Credit Ashton Marra

Butcher said each year, the county has seen less and less of a surplus in their budget to the point where next year, they’re expecting to go into the red.

As a part of their ten year Comprehensive Education Facilities Plan, a plan each county is required to submit to the state Board, Fayette was set to combine Meadow Bridge, Fayetteville and Midland Trail High Schools into the existing Midland Trail facility with some additional renovations. That way, the county only had to staff three high schools instead of the current five, saving significantly on personnel costs.

But with a vote of 6-2, the Board amended the county’s facilities plan, also known as their CEFP, and pulled any future plans for Meadow Bridge High School off the table and out of consideration for another year, essentially saving the school from consolidation. At least for now.

“When you pull Meadow Bridge out of that consolidation then we need to go back to the drawing board and see if the plan still works or if we need to reconfigure how we’re looking at things,” Butcher said after the vote. “We’ll also need to realign costs.”

Dozens of Fayette County residents, both supporters and detractors of the consolidation plans for Meadow Bridge High School, packed the state Board of Education meeting at the Department of Education in Charleston.
Credit Ashton Marra

While the vote was at least a small win for Meadow Bridge supporters, dozens of which showed up to the meeting to speak against consolidation, members of the Board, in particular President Gayle Manchin, see this as a time extension.

Basically, let’s take a step back, study the implications of closing the school, and see if that’s the best option for the county. With the state currently in control of Fayette County Schools, Manchin said they want to get it right.

“The parents that I heard get up and speak about Meadow Bridge, their concern was the travel time on extremely treacherous roads in the winter from Meadow Bridge to Midland Trail and yet in every report that was given never addressed that. Ever,” Manchin said. “It was always about; Midland Trail is a good high school. I never said that Midland Trail wasn’t a good high school.”

Carolyn Arritt, a retired Fayette County educator, holds up a map of Fayette County as she addresses the Board. Arritt was concerned with the travel time students face at consolidated schools.
Credit Ashton Marra

“We want what is best for our kids. What I asked for on behalf of the Board at our last meeting was that we remove Meadow Bridge from this argument right now because feelings were very high and I felt without trying to address people’s feelings in this that Fayette County had no hope in passing a bond.”

And with that statement, Manchin got to the real issue in Fayette County: a bond proposal set to hit the ballot in May of 2014.

Ask anybody on the street in Fayetteville, Mt. Hope, Milburn or Spring Dale, a lot of community members are saying the bond won’t pass. A bond hasn’t passed since the late 1970’s.

County officials planned to add the consolidation plan into their bond proposal along with other vital facility updates.

“The current capitol improvement plan includes submittal of a School Building Authority project to replace Collins Middle School at a total cost of $24.4 million,” Butcher told the Board. “Our match for that would be a bond that needs to be approved and supported by the voters of Fayette County.”

Butcher said the bond would also include renovations for the consolidated Midland Trail and two brand new elementary schools the county desperately needs.

By tabling the plans to consolidate Meadow Bridge, Butcher and the county are essentially back at square one and will now have to reassess their bond proposal before its submittal date in January.

“It will take money from the School Building Authority from the state of West Virginia and also that support from the voters so we will need to go back to the drawing board and find a plan that the citizen’s can agree on so we can move Fayette County forward,” he said. “Their facilities are in grave need of repair and we still need to accomplish that job.”

Over the next year, the state Board of Education plans to study the impact closing Meadow Bridge High School would have on travel time for students, participation rates in extracurricular activities, student achievement and also the possibility of sending kids to high schools outside of the county instead of the consolidated Midland Trail High School.