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Morgan County board votes to close elementary

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. — Before a crowd of more than 100 people at Greenwood Elementary School, the Morgan County School Board voted 4-1 Wednesday evening to close the school effective for the 2016-17 year.

Greenwood, located in the southeastern part of Morgan County, currently has 48 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Those students will be merged into the Widmyer Elementary and Warm Springs Intermediate schools.

The closure is a quick $98,000 shortfall fix to the budget, which became necessary in October when the state made cuts to school funding. With the closure, officials said the annual savings is estimated at $420,000 to $460,000.

A report prepared in compliance with West Virginia Code, states several reasons for the closure. They include 1) redistribution of resources for the benefit of all students, 2) both new schools have the capacity to accept Greenwood students, 3) there has been a decline in student enrollment in the last 10 years, 4) the condition of the building, 5) the closure would result in enhanced economies of scale, enabling Morgan County Schools’ efficient use of available resources to meet the educational needs of its students.

Board members said there’s been a decline in student enrollment countywide in the last 10 years, and the trend is expected to continue. As enrollment declines, the school system receives less aid from the state. However, student costs per student have increased.

The meeting room was filled with supporters of keeping Greenwood open. Fifteen people spoke against the closure before the board vote.

Cindy Largent Hill thought the closure was an easy fix. Former board member and farmer Phil Harmison said the board has not been good at managing money in the past, and it was putting the burden on the back of a specific community.

John Carpenter said he’d moved there eight months ago. In a larger school in Pennsylvania, his son was afraid to speak before a crowd. Now, he’s class president and spoke to the board on Dec. 15 to encourage keeping Greenwood open.

Carpenter said: “In Pennsylvania., he was a number – one of 696. Here, he’s blossomed.”

Jean Stewart has no kids in the area, but said she has a master’s degree in education. She thought the extra time on the bus for the kids was not the best use of their time. Students could expect an additional 15-20 minutes on their ride. Greenwood is 10.4 miles from Widmyer and 11.8 miles from Warm Springs Intermediate.

“And with the schools being farther away from home,” Stewart said, “I don’t know if the parents or community will be able to support the other schools like they do here.”

All those who spoke in favor of keeping the school open said they believed students get a better education in smaller schools and the school community was a close family.

Board member Pat Springer countered and said data shows larger schools are just as effective with educational services. But some parents vowed their children will be home-schooled next year.

Wayne Sherard said his fourth-grader is an above-average student. Looking for cost-cutting alternatives, he wondered if there was a state mandate or recommendations on whether an assistant superintendent is necessary depending on the number of students. Superintendent Dave Banks said he didn’t know.

Greenwood student Remington Yost presented a support petition with 600 signatures, which he said were not all Greenwood-area residents. The boy had taken his petition “to town” to find supporters of Greenwood with no vested interest in the school.

School board president David Ambrose said all taxes are declining, from coal severance and state sales tax, to real estate taxes. The school system did not get as much excess levy money when a lesser levy than in the past was accepted by taxpayers in 2014.

“We have roughly a $630,000 budget shortfall for fiscal year 2016,” said Ambrose. “We can’t carry that kind of deficit. In all probability, there will be more cuts in the spring. We don’t know where they will be yet.”

Board member and former Greenwood teacher John Rowland presented an alternative budget cutting plan that would’ve kept the school open at least for now. He said he’d been trying to formulate this plan since they found out in October of the state cuts. He’d only finished it earlier in the day.

“I spent 40 years in this building,” Rowland said. “It makes no sense for one community to shoulder the burden for the failure of a board over a period of time.”

He couldn’t talk specifics about ideas on personnel cuts in a public forum, but said at one time, there were 800 kids at Berkeley Springs High School. Now, there are 713, more if alternative education kids are not counted as five-day students because they come two days. Yet, he said there hadn’t been any reductions in staff there.

Salaries make up the largest portion of the school’s budget. But Ambrose said personnel cuts cannot be made at this time. In January, personnel issues will be evaluated.

Rowland said: “As much as I like sports, Paw Paw and Berkeley Springs athletics could become self-sufficient with more fundraising. We need to look at supplemental contracts for special duties. And we should talk to home-school parents to see if they’d come to our schools. We have a 70 percent student poverty rate. We should pursue grants for poverty issues and grants for community-based schools like Greenwood. We should pursue the money the state owes us that it didn’t give us this year. That would make up for the loss.”

Rowland was referring to the state board of education, which through a clerical error, did not reimburse some school systems for all monies they were owed.

Despite comments that his ideas were good ones, other board members voted closure. The crowd became verbally upset and some who’d spoken accused the board of having their minds made up, no matter whether an alternative was presented. Some told members Laura Smith and Pat Springer, who represent the area of Greenwood, that they would not vote for them in the next board election.

Holding back tears, Principal Barbara Miller encouraged parents to support the new schools and to not let this divide the community.

Wayne Sherard asked officials to look at Rowland’s plan and put off closing the school at least six months. ButAmbrose said according to state code, if a school board planned a school closing in 2016-17 school year, they had to notify the state by Dec. 31.

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