Fayette school bond supporters sense hope in election

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Fayette school bond supporters sense hope in election
By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer

The abrupt January closure of Collins Middle School’s seventh-and-eighth-grade building has fueled an effort to pass Fayette County’s first bond in more than 40 years despite continuing opposition to consolidation.

The closure forced the school to send about 400 students elsewhere after also seeing its band building and gym shuttered due to structural issues in the previous months.

A majority vote — which could lead to 15 years of increased property taxes, conditioned on the state School Building Authority responding to residents’ commitment by pitching in over $25 million of its own funds — could generate $66.5 million for several building projects. That would include a new Collins Middle and a new Mount Hope Elementary School, where one classroom has been closed following countywide structural inspections launched in the wake of the issues at Collins Middle.

Some see an increased chance that Fayette voters will pass a bond June 13 after 86 percent voted against a 2001 attempt and 77 percent against one in 2009, contributing to the state school board’s takeover of the county schools system a year later.

Fayette County Clerk Kelvin Holliday said he believes that if the election were held today, the vote would be close to 50 percent in favor, with turnout at least doubling the under 10 percent the past bond elections received. He said the Collins Middle issues — which occurred in Oak Hill, the county’s most populous area — have been a “lightning rod.” The school district will spend at least $100,000 to host the election, for which, unlike in past bond votes, it is funding early voting at three locations from May 30 to June 10: the Memorial Building in Fayetteville, Montgomery City Hall and Danese Community Center.

Before the 2010 takeover, the state Office of Education Performance Audits presented the state board a roughly 160-page report on Fayette’s problems in academics, facilities and other areas. Fayette’s standardized testing scores had slipped in the previous five years — they have been trending higher since, but dropped again last school year.

The OEPA document noted the agency’s review of local school board meeting minutes contradicted the “satisfactory” relationship board members and the superintendent said existed among them. Two board members were against the failed 2009 bond attempt.

“This division within the Fayette County Board of Education continued the division of the county’s citizens,” the OEPA report stated. “Individual members will disagree and vote accordingly; however, when the majority of the board vote carried, a public representative group respects the majority decision. This has not been the case in Fayette County.

“Historically, the board in Fayette County has been contentious, demonstrated primarily by the issue of school closures and consolidation. The Team observed that while many small elementary schools had been closed, the high schools remained [open] with the exception of Gauley Bridge High School. A member or members of the board have been unwilling to deal with the very small high schools and support a plan to combine some and improve severe facility deficiencies, limited curriculum, and poorly achieving schools.”

In a 2009 report, the OEPA called the middle and high schools “substandard” and said it is “almost impossible to operate this number of schools with the staffing levels and capacity that currently exist in Fayette County.”

According to Fayette school board member Leon Ivey, the county has closed 20 — more than half — of its schools in the past 25 years. Three of those, including Nuttall Middle School and Mount Hope High School, shut down since the 2010 state takeover, leaving the county with two middle schools and five high schools, some of which also have seventh- and eighth-graders.

The Fayette school district has among the highest number of high schools in the state, exceeding counties with more students than Fayette’s enrollment of 6,800.Ivey, who was on the board during the failed 2009 bond attempt, said the current five-member board still has two members opposed — a letter to the editor in The Bluefield Daily Telegraph by fellow board member Lou Jones called the bond “contrived to gain votes to get it passed.” Ivey, who supports the bond, said the structural issues at Collins Middle and Meadow Bridge High School, where a second floor containing four classrooms and a library has been closed after the countywide structural reports, have made this a “different time.”

Geoff Heeter, who has lived in Fayette since the late 1980s, said he sees “exponentially” greater support this time.

“You can tell just driving around the streets, how many ‘vote yes’ signs are out there,” he said, also noting the number of newspaper letters to the editor in favor.

He attributed this to the fact that, unlike in the 2009 bond election, the new plan wouldn’t consolidate four high schools into one new building. He said residents have also taken notice of recent facilities issues in the county, though there have long been problems. When his daughter was in fifth grade about a decade ago, she was hit in the head by a piece of concrete that fell from the ceiling in now-closed Nuttall Middle.

“When schools are falling down around your children’s heads, it’s time to do something,” he said.

But support is not apparent in Meadow Bridge, a town on Fayette’s southern edge where earlier this month the yellow “VOTE NO SCHOOL BOND” signs appeared as soon as one crosses the Summers County line on W.Va. Route 20, before even reaching the welcome signs for the town and the rest of Fayette County.

There is strong opposition to the fact that the bond would fund a current, decade-long facilities plan that intends to close Meadow Bridge High and send the roughly 175 ninth- through 12th-graders there to Midland Trail High, a school about 25 miles north, near Hico. The seventh- and eighth-graders would remain on the campus, combining with the adjacent Meadow Bridge Elementary School to create a new school covering pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Randall Patterson, 65, of Meadow Bridge, has grandchildren at Meadow Bridge High. He spoke against closing the school at state school board meetings. He said the community wants to hire a company to give a second opinion on whether the second floor of the school is really unsafe, but the district won’t allow it. He said if the bond doesn’t pass, the facilities plan could easily be amended.

“It’s created a lot of dissension in this county,” Patterson said of the upcoming bond vote. “There are different factions that have taken sides, there’s been a lot of name calling … and it’s sad.”

More than 200 people — U.S. census data say the local population is about 400 — attended a community meeting earlier this month at Meadow Bridge High, one of several similar gatherings held at schools throughout the county. The vast majority of speakers during the nearly four-hour meeting were opposed to closing the school.

Regardless of whether the bond passes, the school could be closed anyway. Even without the $17.9 million in renovations and additions that a successful bond election could provide to Midland Trail High to accept the Meadow Bridge students and students from Fayetteville High School, school district Treasurer Paula Fridley said Midland Trail High is already large enough to assimilate Meadow Bridge.

In 2013, the state school board ordered Fayette to remove mention of closing Meadow Bridge High from the Comprehensive Education Facilities Plan and review that document, but the community group tasked with job didn’t agree to any changes. State Board of Education President Gayle Manchin said that after that review and a survey of parents, teachers and others in the county, the board “stepped back” and allowed the Fayette school district to move forward with running a bond that would fund the closing of the school.

The state board would have to approve closure if the bond fails. Manchin said that whether or not it passes, she believes the board will respect what the district wants to do with Meadow Bridge. She declined to say whether she personally supports the bond.

“I really think we’re at the point where the less we say, the better it is for everyone,” she said.

Fayette school district officials have argued that consolidating the two high schools into Midland Trail would allow students to take more courses, including advanced placement classes.

The pre-state takeover OEPA report noted that a majority of Fayette’s schools, where enrollment has been dropping, were below the optimum 85 percent utilization rate. An earlier report noted that Meadow Bridge had a 54 percent utilization rate — the lowest in the county. Standardized test scores have been slipping at Meadow Bridge since the 2010-11 school year.

Fridley said the consolidation would also allow the district to spend less money on utilities and maintenance by closing down more of the Meadow Bridge campus to host the consolidated pre-K-through-eighth school, and allow for more savings by closing the current Ansted Elementary School building, which is among the district’s oldest.

Ansted Elementary would relocate to the Ansted Middle School building, whose students would be transferred to the current Fayetteville High School building, which would become a middle school.

Fridley said she hadn’t yet estimated how much money the consolidation would save, but she said the county can’t currently fund all its needed maintenance issues.

When the structural reviewers determined that Meadow Bridge’s second floor should hold neither children nor objects, “They made us remove everything,” Fridley said. “It can’t even be used as storage up there; they wanted all the weight off it.”

But at the Meadow Bridge community meeting, held in the Meadow Bridge High gym, Toni Vaughn questioned the motivation for closing the school she graduated from, her son graduated from and another son is attending.

“How many schools have been shut down for the large-school idea, that takes place on another mountain, across another mountain?” she asked.

She said her son asked her, “Where am I going to graduate from?” She pointed to the door to right of the basketball hoop, behind the chairs and bleachers where everyone was sitting.

“Will he be walking, will I see him like I saw my oldest son, will he take that same path that I took?”