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Tom Miller: No easy solutions to schools' brick-and-mortar woes

May. 11, 2013 @ 11:46 PM

A debate currently underway in one of West Virginia's 55 counties about the future direction of its primary and secondary education program in the public schools highlights concerns that are also on the table in many other counties around the state.

A key issue for school board members in Fayette County as well as parents and other interested residents there is the decline in the number of schools now operating in that county. The state took over the county school system there in 2010 mostly because of problems with facilities and student achievement.

"In 1990 we had 38 schools," school board member Lou Jones told Dr. James Phares, state Superintendent of Schools, at a recent meeting. "In 2013 we have 18 left." And Dr. Phares responded that Pocahontas County -- one of the first districts in the state to consolidate -- had 1,408 students in 1998. He said that was the same number they had 100 years earlier but during that time the number of schools dropped from 104 to five.

So Fayette County's reduction from 38 schools to 18 in the last 23 years pales in comparison. And another school board member there, David Arrit, told Phares that the state's decision to take over control of the county schools has not caused any appreciable improvement in the schools.

Much of the emphasis in Fayette County -- not uncommon in other counties -- is on the "bricks and mortar" aspect of improving the county's public school system. An architect's report concluded that the cost of addressing the county's school construction needs alone would be an estimated $122 million, which is nearly double the county's bonding capacity.

Fayette County Superintendent of Schools Keith Butcher is aware that the county's total bonding capacity of approximately $67 million is far short of the amount the county needs. He said he realizes that "our needs will clearly take more than one bond (issue)" or funding from the statewide School Building Authority.

Two county residents from the Meadow Bridge area of the county have been given credit for starting a movement to seek a countywide vote on what should be done to finance improvements in the county school system. But at least two of the school board members have criticized these efforts as a "Band-Aid" that is limited to preserving community schools.

Butcher also has been considering alternatives including the possibility of a cross-county lines school to serve students in the Meadow Bridge area who live near the border of Summers County. One member of the Fayette County Board of Education, Leon Ivey, said the steering committee's efforts seem to be aimed at "keeping all schools open" instead of considering all possible options.

Ironically, the West Virginia Board of Education voted last week to return full control and authority of the McDowell County public schools to the McDowell County Board of Education effective July 1. The state board had been in control of that county's public school system for more than 11 years.

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During the first 10 months of the new state law that bans driving while texting or talking on a hand-held cellphone, a total of 125 people have been convicted of this new traffic offense in West Virginia, according to data from the state's Department of Motor Vehicles.

The municipal court in Beckley had the most convictions reported to DMV from any jurisdiction and Berkeley County and Charleston were close behind with 12 convictions each.

Motorists who are caught texting while behind the wheel can be fined $100 for a first offense. The fine for a second offense is $200 and the third and other subsequent offenses carry a fine of $300. Motorists using a hand-held cellphone to talk while driving will be guilty of a primary traffic offense starting on July 1, 2013.

A bill to prohibit video screens, video monitors, television and television receivers in view of the driver while the vehicle is moving (SB515) was also approved during the session and will become law in mid-July -- 90 days after the passage date.

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You can add Buckhannon to the small list of West Virginia cities that has extended housing and employment nondiscrimination to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. On May 2, this Upshur County municipality joined Charleston, Morgantown, Lewisburg and Harpers Ferry as cities in the state where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people cannot be fired or denied housing based on their sexual orientation.

It comes after an attempt at the 2013 session of the West Virginia Legislature to pass a bill introduced by Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, to add sexual orientation to the protected categories in the state's Human Rights Act. Skinner later asked the House of Delegates not to pursue the bill because he was concerned it would be watered down to the point it would be ineffective. While a majority of Americans support gay rights nationally, there is little support shown for gay people in West Virginia.

Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.

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