ELKINS, W.Va. — After years of warning the public that schools would have to be closed if a levy wasn’t passed, and fresh from watching a levy proposal be voted down for the second time in last week’s primary election, the Randolph County Board of Education voted Tuesday to close Homestead and Valley Head elementary schools.
The BOE plans to shutter the schools after the 2016-17 school year.
The vote to close Valley Head was unanimous, while BOE member Janie Newlon cast the only vote against closing Homestead, but did not offer her reasons for doing so.
“The hardest thing to do on the board is what we did tonight,” said BOE member Harvey Taylor, who was defeated last week in his re-election bid.
Board President Lisa Wamsley explained the one-year period before the closures allows the Board of Education to be fiscally responsible about the move.
“It takes about a year to go through that process unless, of course, there is a major catastrophe at one of those schools,” Wamsley said.
About 50 community members from both the Valley Head and Homestead school zones were present at the board office Tuesday evening and many expressed their displeasure about the decisions.
Speaking during the public comments section of the meeting, before the votes were taken, Valley Head parent Richard Gould asked the BOE, “Would you, as a parent or grandparent want your child to travel 30 or more minutes to school when there is a perfectly good school in your own community?”
Gould emphasized students from Valley Head will lose the individualized attention and assistance that they are able to receive in a 12-15 student classroom once the school is forced to consolidate and students are put into larger classrooms.
Gould also questioned how schools would be consolidated in regard to additional modular buildings and the reconfiguration of middle schools.
“Currently the superintendent is looking at consolidating and putting the fifth grade at the middle school level because (grades) 5-8 is technically middle school age appropriateness instead of K through 5,” Wamsley said.
Wamsley explained fifth grade students would most likely be moved to Tygarts Valley Middle School, but parents will be given the opportunity to apply for “out of zone” if they so choose. That status would allow their children to attend another school, such as Elkins Middle School.
However, Wamsley said some of the “town schools” are already at capacity.
Speaking on behalf of Homestead Elementary School, Tom Rennix, president of the Tygart Valley Homestead Association, said, “According to the deed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Board of Education in 1939, the building was to be maintained in a safe condition, furnished and kept in good repair – to be kept and faithfully performed – I guess we would only ask, what went wrong?”
Homestead School was built in 1939 to replace 11 one-room school houses in the towns of Dailey, East Dailey and Valley Bend.
Homestead School was recognized by the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 and was recently added to the West Virginia Endangered Properties List.
Superintendent Pam Hewitt said, “It has served its community very well over the years, but right now, we look at that school and we’ve got a school that needs upgrades with the electricity, we’ve got a school that needs upgrades with the plumbing, we’ve got a school that has asbestos, we’ve got a school that needs a new roof, and those are very costly line items when you look at upgrading them to where they need to be and getting that school in the position that the students deserve.”
“With the deed with Homestead, it will revert back to exactly what is stated in the deed, and there is a private family that owns the property of Valley Head and that property will revert back to that family,” Wamsley said.
Educators at Valley Head and Homestead will face riffing or transferring that may effect newer teachers, Wamsley said.
“With declining population and declining enrollment, we have to look at what’s best, especially with a deteriorating building; it poses a safety issue,” Wamsley said.
Recently elected Randolph County Board of Education member Amanda Smith, who attended the meeting as a private citizen, said, “I think that what so many parents want is a plan.”
“They will anxiously await to hear what that plan is, and it sounds to me like that’s something that will be provided in the next meeting or so,” Smith said.
Board member Bruce Haddix, who also was defeated in the primary election, said, “Education is one of the most important things that we have to give, and we have to be willing to sacrifice if that’s what it takes to educate our children.”
“Some of us are concerned about closing this school, but my concern is I want to see our kids get the best education that we can possibly give them,” Haddix said.
“I hope it works out for the best, and I think it will once it settles in,” Taylor said. “I know it’ll work out. Mrs. Hewitt’s got a plan.”
Former BOE member Carol Cain Bush said, “Because schools in West Virginia are funded per student, our school funding has continued to go down.”
Bush stressed the board has worked for years to keep the schools open.
In early December, the Randolph County BOE voted unanimously to amend the county’s 10-year Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan, identifying Homestead Elementary School as a potential closure school, joining Valley Head Elementary on that list.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting:
Attendance Director Lynn Proudfoot gave a report to the BOE regarding attendance numbers in Randolph County Schools.
Board member Donna Auvil said, “We’re down below 4,000 students.”
Hewitt and Proudfoot gave further details regarding the process that is taken when a student attempts to unenroll or begins the process of unenrolling.
Three Golden Horseshoe winners were recognized by Donna Simmons.
“Each year, 221 eighth grade students are honored for their knowledge of the state in a one day ceremony in Charleston,” Simmons said. “The Golden Horseshoe winners have out-scored their classmates in school and county wide testing competitions.”
Recognition was also given by John Daniels, principal of the Randolph Technical Center, to students from schools around the county for their participation and success in state or national competitions for Skills USA, HOSA, FFA, FBLA, and Globaloria.
“Without the teachers that we have and without the technology that we have made available to those kids, they wouldn’t be able to receive those awards,” Wamsley said.
The Randolph County Board of Education student representative Morgan Rice, a student from Pickens, also spoke before the BOE Tuesday. Rice highlighted the Pickens track and field and cross country teams’ participation and success throughout this school year.
School counselors from the county gave a presentation to provide an understanding of what secondary and elementary counselors do in schools in Randolph County.
Jill Zurbach said, “The Comprehensive School Counseling Programs are created to meet the missions of our individual schools and they are to be embedded into curriculum serving all students in a proactive manner with prevention and research based programs.”
Aaron Talbott said, “We’re part of the educational team, so we want to be able to help every student succeed and be able to get students ready for life after school.”
In a special meeting Tuesday, the BOE approved proposed levy rates from the superintendent for the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2017. According to the agenda, these are the same rates from the previous year, and the county assessor prepared the assessed values and rates that are set by the Legislature during regular session.
The BOE will continue the meeting on May 24.
A tree was planted outside of the Board of Education office in honor of the late Bill McWhorter. McWhorter oversaw the ArtsBank program and worked with many students in Randolph County.