PHILIPPI, W.Va. — The Barbour County Board of Education voted Monday to close two county elementary schools, though local residents turned out to ask that the schools remain open.
The BOE accepted the recommendations submitted by Superintendent Jeff Woofter and voted unanimously to close Volga-Century and Mount Vernon elementary schools at the conclusion of the 2016-2017 school year.
The Board also voted to amend the Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan to reflect the consolidation of the student population into Philippi Elementary School.
Amid sighs of resignation from the 27 parents, children, teachers and PTO officers representing Mount Vernon at the Monday afternoon special session, Board of Education members offered apologies for having to make the decision to close the two schools. BOE members noted the schools are important to their communities, but said they had become an economic burden on the entire county school system.
In two special sessions Monday, Wooster offered his reasoning for closing the two schools with a power point presentation in the Philip Barbour High School auditorium, outlining information which had been researched and formulated this past year and placed on the Barbour County School’s website in June.
The prepared Statement of Reasons for the two school closures and consolidation was in accordance with the West Virginia Board of Education code and allowed for public comment to the recommendations in writing to the board beginning June 6, culminating with personal presentation at Monday’s hearing.
Major reasons and supporting data used to come to the recommendation to close the schools included decreasing enrollment trends, compounded by low academic scores, and disrepair of both facilities. Funding and economics played a major role in the recommendations, as well, officials said.
Woofter began his presentation by admitting “it is always in the best interest of a community not to close its schools if it’s in the best interest of the students involved in that closing,” but said in speaking with school personnel throughout the district, present and past Board members and staff, he found many reasons to close both elementary schools.
“I would never consider closing a school unless it was in the best interest for the kids,” Woofter told the Board. “That’s my first and foremost concern.”
He noted the usage of the combined classroom system in both elementary schools was of no benefit to the students in either school.
“It is impossible to get good test scores when you combine two grades levels into one year,” Woofter explained. “If a child does not reach their grade level by the third grade, it becomes more difficult for that child to reach their required grade level potential throughout their academic years.”
Woofter said only 1 in 20 students who moved out of the two elementary schools were able to reach an adequate level of proficiency they could use to increase their levels in the next school. He noted at the current level of funding available to Barbour County schools it would be impossible to expand to single-grade classes in the two schools..
Several speakers addressed the Board asking that the schools remain open, stating schools are more than statistics and test scores, they are safe havens where children can be taught community values as well as reading, writing and math.
Mount Vernon PTO secretary Denese Bray noted “it takes a village to raise a child” and the Mount Vernon school is a “vital part of that village.” She noted 50 of the 53 students at Mount Vernon participate in the World Vision “Kid’s Reach” summer program at the school because it is close to their community and where they live.
“If you take away the school,” she said, “you are taking away opportunities they cannot take advantage of if they have to be driven by parents an extra 10 to 15 miles to the location. Parents don’t always have time or the money to do that every day.”
Sonya Mitchell, in support of keeping Mount Vernon open, took her turn at the podium and read an email from Tim Mettey, CEO of Matthew 25 Industries, who offered a $110,000 grant to the school to be used to hire a new teacher to break up combined classes, and if test scores increased, would make the grant available every year.
Kristie Knapp, a local parent, said she has two children who attend Mount Vernon. She said she appreciates the moral teachings of a smaller school, and how each child is treated individually on their own merits. She said her children had learned a great deal at the school.
Ashley Workman, principal of Mount Vernon, and Melody Faulkner, a teacher at Mount Vernon, both spoke in favor of the school staying open.
No one from the community spoke during the Volga-Century session, which began at 9 a.m., although 10 residents attended the session.
Woofter noted Barbour County schools are experiencing a steady decline in enrollment across the board, and especially at the two elementary schools. Loss of enrollment jeopardizes SBA funding, which requires a 60 percent utilization rate.
“Mount Vernon and Volga-Century combined would not even reach a 60 percent rate,” Woofter explained to the Board. “If we combine those two schools with Philipi Elementary, the utilization rate would be 65 percent. If we don’t consolidate, Philippi Elementary will not qualify for funding.”
“Philippi Elementary could be a West Virginia School of Excellence in the next couple of years, ” he added. “The students coming in from the other two schools can help achieve that.”
Another consideration is the cost per student ratio on a county wide level. According to data formulated within the past year, the average cost per county student is $10,000 per year. Volga-Century came in at $20,000 per student and Mount Vernon at $15,000. At the same time, both schools are experiencing a downward trend in enrollment.
The county school budget for 2016-17 was a major issue in looking at the maintenance problems of the two elementary schools. The Barbour County school system is facing a $500,000 to $700,000 deficit in its 2016-17 budget.
With both elementary schools needing new HVAC at a cost of $400,000 each, Woofter said, “It’s simply impossible. We just can’t do it.”
Glen Sweet, director of attendance, facilities and data, said the HVAC at both schools was installed in 1979.
“The cabinets are now rotten, the system does not meet required safety standards for students and it does not meet new air quality standards,” explained Sweet. “Leakage from rain coming through the cabinets and into rotting pans, passes on into the ceilings. For most of the units, elements cannot even be purchased anymore due to age.”
Woofter said $1.1 million is being spent on a new HVAC system for Philippi Elementary this year and noted “your kids can take advantage of that.”
When asked by Board of Education member Joanne McConnell whether closing the schools would be more beneficial to balancing the budget, Annette Hughart, treasurer and chief financial officer for the county schools, noted consolidation may just help lesson that deficit. Hughart also indicated consolidation into Philippi Elementary will not change that $10,000 per student average.
McConnell expressed interest in transportation issues, distances buses would need to run and if routes would change. Sweet said bussing to Philippi would mean longer trips for some students, but would alleviate back tracking. With a state-mandated length of ride for elementary students of no more that 30 minutes. and 45 minutes for middle and high school students, most of the bus routes will be reduced.
Board member Adam Starks brought up health care issues at both sessions and how staff, who may lose jobs due to consolidation, will be absorbed into other areas of the school system.
Both Mount Vernon and Volga-Century employ nurses for half a day per week. Woofter said both will be full-time at Philippi Elementary. If an emergency should occur, Philippi Elementary is just a two-minute drive from Broaddus Hospital, Woofter said.
Jeff Kittle, assistant superintendent, noted the child count in October determines the personnel count, but said he felt most personnel would be retained. Additional teachers would be needed for K-3. Staff with seniority will be transferred and teachers with less time under their belt would be put on the reduction list.
After voting on all recommendations, each member of the Board expressed their apologies for having to vote “from their head, rather than their heart.”
McConnell, with emotion, said, “My heart is breaking for you.”
“Mount Vernon is only 2.4 percent of the student population and Volga-Century, 1.2 percent. As a member of the Board, I have to look at all schools and what is best for the entire county,” she said.
Starks apologized to the Mount Vernon supporters for making his “first vote as a Board member one that would negatively affect the emotions of so many people.”