West Virginia Community Story Tells Much About School Consolidation


Last Updated: July 23, 2010
 

This article appeared in the July 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

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Most school consolidations don’t happen out of the blue. Momentum builds over time as local politics, economic circumstances, and state policies change. This ebb and flow can become so much part of the life of the school and community that many local residents quit paying much attention to it.

Meadow Bridge in West Virginia has been a potential target of school consolidation for the better part of 40 years, and the community is once again in the throes of trying to protect its school.

“Since the push for consolidation started in West Virginia, the vast majority of elected Fayette County school board members have supported our community schools." says Carolyn Arritt, a Meadow Bridge resident, retired teacher, and former Fayette County school board member." However, in 1975, 2001, and 2010, a couple of board members who believed that economies of scale with new buildings would improve curriculum and learning have pushed hard for consolidation."

Arritt continues, "Most of the high schools in West Virginia have been consolidated during the last 30 years, but students, according to published reports, are lagging behind. Apparently, consolidated schools are not the solution, but the state continues to focus in that direction."

The story of Meadow Bridge has many of the elements common to school consolidation fights around the country. Arritt, who is also a fellow with Challenge West Virginia.challengewv.org, which works to improve small community schools and give citizens a voice in educational policy, shares her perspective on what’s happened. RPM distills (in the yellow inset boxes) themes that are common in school consolidation initiatives around the country. We hope this story will help readers understand some of the pressures on rural schools in their own communities and states.

The Rural Context: Meadow Bridge

Meadow Bridge is an isolated community, located at the far southeastern edge of Fayette County in south central West Virginia. It is just one-tenth of a mile from the Summers County line and nine miles from the Greenbrier County line, but 30 miles from Fayetteville, the county seat town. Situated at 2,800 feet, the school occupies the highest elevation of any school in this mountainous county. This past winter, the region received more than 200 inches of snow.

As consolidations in neighboring Summers and Greenbrier counties have moved schools more to the center of those counties, students have transferred to Meadow Bridge, making it serve more as a regional school and saving students from long bus rides in their own school districts.

RPM Observation: Schools threatened with consolidation are often located at the edge of the county away from the population center. Smaller schools in multi-school districts are more vulnerable than schools in small districts with their own governance structures. Poorer schools in less politically influential communities are more vulnerable than other schools.

The elementary school (K–6) and the middle/high school (7–12) share adjacent campuses and together serve about 450 students. The schools are part of the county-wide Fayette County school district. Six communities in the county have high schools and nine communities have elementary schools. A little over 70% of Meadow Bridge students qualify for free/reduced lunches, the second highest rate in the county.

Consolidation: Building Momentum

“It was about 1975 when the county decided they wanted to consolidate some schools, so they got up a bond initiative [to raise money for new schools],” says Arritt. “People in Meadow Bridge didn’t want to lose our school, so enough people got involved and helped defeat the bond.”

Meadow Bridge wasn’t closed, but about a year later, the consolidation effort did result in the combining of two existing small high schools (Ansted and Nutall) into Midland Trail High School. Three additional high schools were built in Oak Hill, Fayetteville, and Valley.

RPM Observation: Schools in which maintenance has been neglected are more vulnerable to consolidation than facilities that are in good condition. Ongoing preventive maintenance reduces the likelihood of major renovation expenses. A clue that a school is targeted for consolidation is neglect of maintenance. Some states that push consolidation deny state funding for maintenance to targeted schools.

“Now they’re saying the schools are crumbling,” says Arritt. “The buildings are in need of required maintenance, and some schools need more,” she adds. “But the buildings haven’t been maintained like they should have been all along. So that’s part of the reasoning to consolidate now.”

In response to maintenance needs at Meadow Bridge, local residents got together two years ago and painted classrooms, hallways, and restrooms, replaced needed ceiling tiles, and refinished flooring. “We couldn’t do the big maintenance items, but we did do cosmetic things to make the school look better,” Arritt explains, adding that the effort was a matter of pride and commitment to students as well as a statement of intent to keep the schools in the community.

State Facilities Process

West Virginia, like many states, requires local school districts to come up with a long-term facilities plan. The Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan (CEFP), as it is known in West Virginia, is developed in a supposedly community-based process led by a committee appointed by the local board and governed by state regulations.

“In 2001, they came up with a consolidation plan,” says Arritt, describing a Fayette County CEFP process. “West Virginia says this is a local process, but the force for consolidation is from the state.”

She continues, "The CEFP is to take into consideration such facts as student health and safety, economies of scale, and demographics and travel. Of these three, it seems that economies of scale - middle schools of at least 450 students, or 150 a grade, and high schools of at least 600, or 200 a grade - is given more weight. The state population is said to have decreased over the last 30 years, but the numbers in the economics of scale have not decreased proportionally."

West Virginia has set travel time guidelines for bus rides of 30 minutes for elementary students, 45 minutes for middle schools, and 60 minutes for high schools.

"Apparently Fayette County's CEFP Steering Committee did not take student health and safety or the demographics and travel time into consideration," says Arritt.

Consolidation of schools within districts is a “local school board decision” in most states. But many state departments of education encourage, push, or force local districts to close smaller schools and sometimes tell the local board they have to close schools for academic or economic reasons or to be eligible for certain funding streams.

RPM Observation: The facilities planning process in most states involves a mix of both state guidance and local planning. This process is an important one in which consolidation decisions can be set in motion or averted. Many planning processes include regulations that bring subtle pressure to consolidate on communities without their knowledge. Learning the state’s facilities rules is one of the most important actions that local residents can do to protect and plan for their school’s future.

In larger multi-school districts, there is usually some tension over consolidation. Often, residents of larger towns in no danger of losing their schools believe that consolidation will bring more opportunities or resources into their places and so they support it. New school construction can mean money, sales, and jobs for some local firms and residents, so some interests view consolidation as a means for generating short-term construction activity. Pressures from the state to consolidate exacerbate and often skew these tensions away from important local considerations that residents hold in balance.

In some cases, state pressures are slow and steady, in some cases quick and extreme.

Fayette County’s consolidation pressures have been both steady and more extreme.

“The bond initiative for the 2001 consolidation plan didn’t pass, 86% of the people didn’t want it,” says Arritt. That’s when things really began to get difficult. “There was a new superintendent brought in just to push consolidation,” she says.

Bad Politics, Local Governance Chaos

For the next several years, the fights went on. Arritt was elected to the county school board in 2002, shifting the balance on the 5-member board to one that favored keeping schools in communities.

RPM Observation: Schools are publicly governed institutions that are part of the democratic fabric, so naturally they are subject to political pressures at times. But when school politics get especially dirty or when schools become objects used for other political ends, some citizens disengage. It becomes hard for teachers and administrators to do their jobs and school morale and productivity suffer. Schools are at risk for closure when there is sustained political fighting at the district level. Citizens need to stay involved in the important education matters at stake.

But Arritt’s election didn’t end the pressures for consolidation. School politics got more heated. “In the last ten years, we’ve probably had about ten superintendents,” Arritt says. “There’s so much in-fighting, many teachers have gotten disgusted, lots of good teachers have retired, things have just been a mess.”

More State Involvement

Amid this turmoil, Fayette County began again to develop its ten-year CEFP plan in October 2008. By this time Arritt was no longer serving on the school board, but was still involved as a citizen and advocate for good schools. “The first meeting I was asked to attend was not a CEFP meeting, but a board meeting," she says. "We were given options concerning possible consolidations. Since a Needs Project was due to the State Department of Education, another meeting was scheduled for the following week. I thought it would be a meeting to discuss possibilities, but the next week they handed out surveys about consolidation. The next thing I knew, the school Board is putting up a bond to combine four high schools together.”

“When that happened,” Arritt continues, “they quit working on the CEFP and started working to promote the bond.”

But the bond failed, with more than 75% of votes against it.

In January 2010, fifteen months later, work on the CEFP began again. Then the state took over the school system in February.

Arritt explains that all the trouble in the county school system had put Fayette County “in the spotlight” and that many local residents were not unhappy to see the takeover in hopes that it would bring some stability and direction.

But those hopes soon turned sour with the release of an Office of Educational Performance Audits (OEPA) report that included misinformation about some of the schools, including Meadow Bridge.

“The report made the school look like it has problems that it doesn’t,” says Arritt. “It said we didn’t offer classes that we do. And it had silly things, like high school students have to walk 25 feet to the cafeteria that is shared between the two schools, like that’s some kind of big problem. It seemed to us like they were trying to justify consolidation.”

RPM Observation: The spread of negative misinformation and misleading stories about schools targeted for consolidation is common and helps build a rationale for closing a school.

Reductions in district resources make it harder for targeted schools to meet state requirements, which are used as an excuse for closure.

High-performing small rural schools are often targeted for consolidation, especially those that serve large portions of low-income or minority students.

In fact, Meadow Bridge students are doing better than Fayette County and West Virginia statewide averages in most all subjects, despite their high poverty rate, according to Arritt. "The graduation rate is over 90% (state is 78%), and the school has been asked to take at-risk students from other schools in danger of not making AYP. Attendance is also high at over 95%, and the student discipline rate is the county’s lowest. Almost 90% of students participated in extracurricular activities. The community gave six community-funded college scholarships, ranging in value from $250 to $2,500, to 2010 graduates."

She adds, "For the last two years, U.S. News and World Report selected Meadow Bridge High School as a Bronze Medal recipient in recognition for it being a top-rated public school."

The Meadow Bridge Local School Improvement Council quickly developed and distributed a response to the OEPA report, correcting misinformation and outlining actions the school and community had taken in response to reductions in resources. It also produced a brochure sharing strengths and accomplishments of the high school.

New Consolidation Plan

The academic strengths of Meadow Bridge High aren’t offering protection to it now. There’s a new consolidation plan; this one would send 6th to 8th grade students from Meadow Bridge to a school 23 miles away.
 
“High school students would be sent to a new 'state of the art' school whose location has not yet been determined," says Arritt. "[One likely] area located half-way between Meadow Bridge and Fayetteville does not meet requirements for a specific school construction project."

Travel would also be difficult, especially for the Meadow Bridge students. "The roads between Fayetteville and that location have about one curve per mile on six miles of four-lane highway," explains Arritt, "whilte the roads between there and Meadow Bridge have approximately five curves per mile on seven miles of narrow two-land road."

Arritt continues, "Some kids live ten miles on the other side of Meadow Bridge, many on one-lane roads, so that's more than 30 miles for the middle schoolers - not accounting for all the bus stops. Most of our kids would be on the bus for three to four hours a day, in good weather, which more than doubles the state guidelines.”

The mountainous terrain complicates things further. “These are dangerous mountain roads our kids will have to ride the bus on,” says Arritt. “When we ask about bringing kids into Meadow Bridge from somewhere else, we’re told that ‘oh, that’s too far and way too dangerous.’ Well, what’s the difference in taking our kids out, it’s the same roads, same distance. Are our kids in less danger, or does it just matter less for them?”

The process has been so fraught with chaos, rumor, and lack of transparency that it’s hard for most residents to know where things stand. “It seems there have been multiple votes by the CEFP committee,” says Arritt. “It’s not clear exactly who’s on the committee or who can vote, and many people believe they kept bringing up the consolidation vote, with people coming and going from the meeting, until they got a majority in favor.” 

And there have been other problems, says Arritt. "The way of taking votes was also different at different meetings. At some meetings the members were grouped and had to have a consensus vote from each of the groups; in other meetings each person had a vote. Also, it's been noted that consolidations of the middle and elementary schools were never voted on by the comittee, but they are included in the final report."

RPM Observation: By the time a consolidation proposal is brought to vote by the local school board or to a public hearing, the decision has usually been made to close schools. It is important for small school advocates to keep their schools strong and to stay involved in and aware of school board and central office policies and activities before a consolidation proposal is made.

Earlier this month, the county held a required public hearing for the CEFP. "This was not a closure hearing, but it is the first step toward that end," says Arritt. “The closure hearings are just a show,” she adds, echoing the observations of hundreds of rural people who have been through similar meetings around the country. "They don't even have that meeting until the consolidation decision is made and they know they have the votes."

It’s not clear yet how things will actually go in this troubled West Virginia school district. “We are hoping that we won’t be forced into consolidation,” says Arritt. “We have a good school at Meadow Bridge and a close knit community. Most people in the county don’t want school consolidation, you see that in the bond vote. But in those places that have lost their school and the community has died away and in those places where there’s a school that’s not really part of a community, it’s just harder for people to be connected to their school, harder to see why or how it matters.”

That’s not the case in Meadow Bridge. “Many of the people most active in response to the CEFP process have been from Meadow Bridge,” says Arritt. “The thing about a small school is that everybody knows everybody. If something happens with your child, you can rely on someone to take care of it until you can get there. The kids know someone is looking out for them, even the ones whose parents aren’t always paying much attention. That’s what makes our school successful. We don’t want to lose it.”

Read more from the July 2010 Rural Policy Matters.