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WV’s first inter-county elementary only 60 percent full

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WV’s first inter-county elementary only 60 percent full 
By Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter, Charleston Gazette-Mail

State School Building Authority officials say West Virginia’s first inter-county elementary school, built with $10.3 million in SBA money, has only about 60 percent of the students planned for it.

The school, Leading Creek Elementary, consolidated Troy Elementary, in Gilmer County and Alum Bridge Elementary, in Lewis County. It was built with 240 students in mind, and can hold as many as 280, said Scott Raines, the SBA’s architectural services director. But only about 150 students attend the new school, Raines said, because Gilmer school officials haven’t redistricted some students from another school, Sand Fork Elementary.

Also, he said, Gilmer school buses are taking some students from the former Troy attendance area farther south to Glenville Elementary instead of to Leading Creek.

Leading Creek Principal Kim Freeland agreed with Raines. She finds it unusual that Gilmer County is providing buses to help their students attend the more distant Glenville Elementary.

The school opened this fall. Freeland said it’s beautiful, and students from both counties have come together as a family. But she said she believes the low enrollment is a financial hardship for Lewis County, which is responsible for the school’s finances and has to pay for its utilities and upkeep.

The state school aid funding formula doles out money largely based on enrollment, and Leading Creek students are counted as Lewis students despite the building being on the county line.

Freeland said she has five rooms that were intended for classes, but are now being used for other purposes.

“One of them is storing all the extra furniture,” she said.

Raines said Gilmer County’s actions violate the county’s contracts with the SBA — not just for Leading Creek, but for a new school in Glenville that’s supposed to open next school year and consolidate students from Gilmer’s remaining elementary schools: Glenville, Normantown and Sand Fork.

“We feel like someone has tried to pull the wool over our eyes,” Raines said. “… We upheld our obligations, we feel like everyone else should uphold theirs, too.”

He said Gilmer Schools Superintendent Gabe Devono has expressed no intention to stop transporting the former Troy students to Glenville Elementary next year.

SBA Executive Director David Sneed said the SBA board — which distributes general revenue, bond proceeds and lottery money for school construction and renovation projects around West Virginia — could have saved $1 million constructing a smaller inter-county school.

He said the board most likely would have declined to fund the project entirely because its already low enrollment is expected to further decline. Compared to the SBA’s investment of more than $10 million, Lewis County put in about $300,000 in local money and Gilmer County only gave $100,000, Raines said.

Devono, who started his position in July 2014, after construction on Leading Creek began, said he can’t find the 240-student figure SBA officials are citing “anywhere in our documents.”

He said, to his understanding, the idea to redistrict Sand Fork Elementary students was discarded early in the planning stages for Leading Creek.

“We’ve sent all the students out there that we have to send,” Devono said.

Raines, however, sent the Gazette-Mail documents from the county’s applications for SBA funding that show the 240-student figure, as well as the plan to redistrict current Sand Fork students.

Harrison County Schools Superintendent Mark Manchin, who led the SBA during Leading Creek’s development, said he remembers the Sand Fork redistricting detail.

Devono declined last week to provide the Gazette-Mail information on transfers from the Leading Creek attendance area, saying he wanted State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano to see the data first.

Martirano said at an SBA board meeting last week that he was “just now getting involved” in the issue at the level he needs to.

The state Board of Education took over the Gilmer school system in 2011 and still controls finance, personnel and facilities decisions there. 

Raines said the SBA hasn’t figured out yet who in the county is making the decisions about transfers.

Deputy State Schools Superintendent Cindy Daniel said transfers are still controlled by the county school board in Gilmer, and she’s working with Devono to ensure the students intended to go to Leading Creek actually do so.

Daniel said Tuesday she didn’t know about students allegedly being bused to Glenville Elementary.

Norma Hurley, a member of Gilmer County’s school board, said any transfers were Devono’s sole decision.

But she said many parents asked to keep their students in Gilmer County, and said the board should honor their wishes. “How do you force someone to go from a district they pay taxes into another for education?” Hurley said.

Subject to lawmakers’ appropriations, part of state law can prevent school systems that lose students to inter-county schools from seeing their funds drop immediately in one year. Devono noted the school has only been open for a few months, and said he supports the concept and will make it work.

Raines said that with most counties losing students, inter-county schools may be the only answer in some areas.

SBA officials are also concerned about Gilmer’s request to amend its facilities plan to keep Glenville Elementary open as a middle school, by transferring seventh and eighth graders from Gilmer County High School and sixth graders from the new consolidated elementary school.

The current plan includes shutting down the existing Glenville Elementary building when the consolidated elementary is finished, and later adding seventh- and eighth-graders to the school.

Devono said the plan amendment had been sent to SBA earlier than anticipated, but declined to elaborate why. He said he thinks the local facilities plan committee, which he leads, voted in either August or September to request the plan change.

He said there’s a lot of support in the county to create a “true middle school,” and though he didn’t have an estimate, he argued the cost would be minimal to turn the current Glenville Elementary into a middle school, noting it used to be a kindergarten- through eighth-grade school and already has a gym and water and gas hookups for a science lab.

But Sneed said the SBA put $12.2 million into building the new consolidated elementary, a cost that could have been $3 million less if it were only built to consolidate the Normantown and Sand Fork schools. He said he won’t take the amendment to his board for the approval for it to be considered for SBA funding.

“That’s a sizable amount of money we’ve spent there to help them be more efficient,” Sneed said. “And now they want to reopen that school.”

Documents the SBA provided also show part of Gilmer’s past argument for closing the elementary school was that it’s “adjacent to a plastics plant causing parent complaints about health and safety to become routine.”

Daniel said there’s still a “lot of discussion to take place” before the amendment to the plan is possibly presented to the state school board for its separate approval. She said Martirano would have to approve it first.