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West Virginia Board Votes Down Controversial Fayette County Consolidation Plan

A West Virginia funding agency shot down today a controversial proposal by state Superintendent Michael Martirano to close several dilapidated schools in Fayette County and build a new $56 million high school, according to local reports. 

I wrote about this contentious debate in the last issue of Education Week as an example of the challenges state superintendents face when they try to wrest control from local politicians to turn around ailing districts.  

The state has run the rural county's school system for the last five years and came up with the plan after residents couldn't agree on how to consolidate when thousands of students left the district with the collapse of the coal mining industry. The agency, known as the School Building Authority, was asked to fund $39 million of the construction costs over three years, but the agency's board members today said the project's price tag was more than triple the average cost of new school construction projects and exceeded the agency's available funds. Board members also said they were bombarded by phone calls and letters from community members who didn't support the plan. 

Today, dozens of Fayette County community members donned in bright orange shirts showed up to the SBA meeting in Charleston and shouted out of turn throughout the meeting to voice their support of the plan, according to local news reports.  

But despite that show of support, only two of the 11 board members supported the plan.  

The county hasn't passed a schools bond since 1973, and its facilities, more than a half-century old, are at risk of caving in, according to engineer reports.  

Under the state's plan, which didn't require local approval, the county would take out an $11 million, 15-year loan to fund the project. Without state money, the plan won't be able to go forward.  

During my trip to Fayette County, several community members expressed to me frustration with the state's control of the county's schools. Test scores have suffered, and four superintendents have been appointed to run the district in the last five years, they pointed out. Many community members saw the state's proposal for consolidation as a path toward local control and as a way to get students into safer facilities.  

The state's plan faced the most pushback from residents of Meadow Bridge, a small town on the south side of the county, who complained that the consolidation would require its mostly poor students to take 80-minute one-way bus rides to school. They also complained that engineer reports which deemed their schools hazardous were grossly over exaggerated.  

With today's vote, the county will remain under state control until it can get a facility plan local and state leaders can agree on. SBA officials said today they would work with the county to design and pass a plan that everyone could agree on. 

"There are no funds available right now, so it's another year of the conditions getting worse," Martirano told The West Virginia Gazette Mail today. 

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