School Consolidation: A Failed Industrial Model

(02/11/2004)

I'm a member of Challenge West Virginia (www.challengewv.org), a grassroots organization trying to reform education in The Mountain State so citizens have a voice in policy decisions and every child can receive a first-class education.

Recent research, "A Decade of Consolidation: Where are the Savings?" proves consolidation has not saved taxpayer money, yet has cost millions more. The numbers used in this research piece are from the State Department of Education.

The education community where local and state officials should know better, is disposed to politics. Even teachers in West Virginia have tried to valiantly speak about the merits of small community-based schools. Ms. Ramey, a former world history teacher lost her job for teaching democracy at our Capitol in Charleston by marching with her students to save their local high school from closure.

West Virginia has closed 322 schools from 1990 to 2000. The negative effects of that go well beyond a community losing its vital organ, having a dissolving effect on our unincorporated communities and their economies, which is a good portion of the state's total economy. This backward trend of school consolidation isn't a good thing, especially at taxpayer's expense and on the backs of kids. The problem of declining enrollment is prevalent across America, not just here. Drop out rates and declining population increase when schools close. Schools should be kept in their communities to make them and their economies stronger and serve all students equally. Consolidation is a failed industrial model when applied to education. Education is not a business. We are educating children that are transported to and from their houses, not producing nuts and bolts for the market that aren't bussed.

It's important that we hold government accountable for efficiently spending our tax dollars.

What's happening in McDowell County is an obvious democratic issue. The "elected" County Board of Education made the right decision when voting against the plan that calls for consolidation presented by the "appointed" State Board of Education. The local Board of Education had "The Peoples Plan". Although it would have closed the same number of schools, it would have kept the existing schools in their communities, helping to diminish long bus rides. Some believe "Federal dollars to be had" that will remove children from their hometowns is more important than a quality education for all.

Consolidation doesn't make sense in McDowell County because it has the poorest population and a rapid declining enrollment.

We should ask the people of the Walton area whether they think consolidation in Roane County was a success. The feedback would be interesting. From the perspective of Spencer residents, the negative effects of consolidation are harder to see: Spencer students are not ripped from their communities and forced on long bus rides. Foreign language courses are sometimes "hit and miss" affairs in consolidated schools around the state, against the word of school officials. Roane County school officials promised to offer advance placement and more foreign language courses at Roane County High School. After being built, there were no advance placement and a diminished amount of foreign language courses than what Walton and Spencer High schools each offered.

We are living in a progressive technology era with capabilities like distance learning that the State Department of Education is not making use of. All West Virginia schools are already wired for distance learning, yet the State Board of Education uses not having enough faculty to deliver a diverse curriculum at small rural schools as an excuse to consolidate. It's ironic that the state's Distance Learning Director, Brenda Williams is married to the West Virginia School Building Authority (SBA) Director, Clacy Williams. I would say this is a conflict of interest, wouldn't you? Small schools increase achievement levels and reduce transportation costs, meaning a lot considering West Virginia operates the most expensive transportation budget in America.

The rapid loss of enrollment is clearly somewhat due to West Virginia using consolidation as it's principal education policy. Our need for small community-based schools is significant due to our land topography and social economic status. An imperative concern is when children are taken out of their communities and forced into another, which causes them to lose their sense of place and citizenship in the world as youngsters and ultimately adults.

As a community, we have a responsibility to construct schools best fit for our rural culture and every student, including low-income ones. Consolidating schools often should not be an alternative in light of distance learning, knowing that consolidation makes drop out rates soar while wasting tax-dollars and the fact that poor students reap the benefits of small community-based schools. This common responsibility will be the challenge for education in West Virginia ahead.

Eric Rogers
Roane County Fellow - Challenge WV
www.challengewv.org