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Accepting state help best course for Wayne schools

Aug. 11, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

The last few years have been tough in the Wayne County Schools system.

One elementary school was ordered closed because of problems related to a sink hole. Two other schools have deteriorated significantly. And a bond issue proposed to pay for new schools and other improvements was soundly rejected by voters, thus undercutting the prospects of getting state financial help for facilities. Complicating matters was the loss of people in key leadership positions due to resignations or retirements.

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools James Phares added another jolt last week. Phares, during one of his many visits to county boards of education in recent months, told the Wayne Board of Education that the county's system is showing many of the traits of a district about to be taken over by the state, including some low test scores. A takeover would mean a state-appointed county schools superintendent and diminished local control.

Phares' declaration wasn't what Wayne school officials expected to hear. Considering the challenges faced by the district in recent years, it shouldn't have been a major surprise, though.

The positive side of Phares' blunt assessment was that it came with an offer of assistance aimed at helping the county avoid state control. That help would come from a leadership team developed at Marshall University with a purpose of working with county boards of education to address issues related to leadership, instruction, facilities and finances.

Wayne officials have indicated they are willing to accept the state's help, which would involve identifying needs and shortcomings and devising strategies to address them. But some also raised questions about where the state has been during recent years. They noted that the county has requested help from the state's School Building Authority to tackle facility needs without much success after the bond proposal was rejected last year.

To his credit, Phares acknowledged that he has sensed in his eight months on the job a disconnect between state agencies and local school systems -- something he's striving to eliminate. Providing candid assessments of local school systems' strengths and weaknesses and offering help are certainly integral ways to remedy that.

For their part, though, Wayne officials may have a disconnect of their own -- with people in the county. That was reflected in the overwhelming rejection of its bond proposal. People complained that the system had not adequately maintained its schools in the past and was seeking money for some unnecessary improvements. Howard O'Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Board Association and a member of the team that likely help Wayne officials, said money issues are often at the root of school system troubles, but he also noted that some "cultural issues where education might not be valued in a community" also come into play sometimes. That may be part of the challenge facing Wayne officials.

The apparent acceptance by Wayne board members and their superintendent of state help is encouraging.

As Wayne County officials insisted, they have become more aggressive in recent months trying to address some money issues. They have streamlined to reduce costs and placed some money in a facilities improvement fund. But there still is a long way to go before the county's schools are on solid footing, and the recognition that assistance is needed is an important step.

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