It rained on the outdoor rally planned for March 25, so the Paden City Cornerstone Project took it inside the gym of Paden City High School to begin its exhortations to save the school from being closed.
Plans to do just that, in 2012, are a part of the Wetzel County Board of Education's state-mandated Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan, which was up for public comment at a special board meeting attended by some 1,000 residents of the community in the PCHS gymnasium.
Closing the school is one of many proposals in the two-volume CEFP, constructed by McKinley & Associates Inc. of Wheeling over 15 months, with input from a committee of 40 Wetzel County parents, community representatives, teachers, and school administrators. The committee included no students.
Wetzel County Superintendent of Schools Bill?Jones, left, and members of the Wetzel County Board of Education listen to a speaker during the four-hour public hearing that was held at PCHS Thursday and attended by approximately 1,000 people. The meeting was in regards to the proposed 10-year Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan that calls for the closure of Paden City High School in 2012. (Photos by Bill Abraham)
The CEFP plans to merge PCHS students with New Martinsville schools, because of where they are-five or so miles up state Route 2. That proximity does not exist between any other schools in the county.
The CEFP warns that its implementation will require "sufficient funding. Although limited local funding may be obtained, (the plan) is not workable without passage of a county-wide bond, and significant additional contributions from the School Building Authority of West Virginia . . . or other state/federal sources. If sufficient funding becomes available" . . . the plan will be fully implemented.
There appear to be multiple reasons not to close PCHS and the oral/written presentations at the March 25 meeting covered them all. Many are covered here.
By way of background, the Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan's recommendation was driven by the West Virginia Legislature's school aid formula that funds 55 county school systems based on the size of the student population. Boards must deploy those funds where they can be maximized.
"The formula is based on total student enrollment, without regard to the number of schools in the county," explained School System Treasurer Jeff Lancaster. "The more schools there are in a county, the more the board must stretch teachers and staff. The size of some classes may have to be increased. The course offerings may have to be cut."
More than 60 percent of the school system's revenue comes from the legislature, with just over 29 percent from local revenue. Another 10 percent of revenue is in the form of state and federal monies for special projects and from other government sources.
This school year, the school system has 14 more professional employees than allowed under the legislative formula and 16 more service workers. Their costs-$50,000 per year for each professional worker and $26,000 a year for each service worker-must be paid by local tax revenue.
For the past 20 years, Wetzel County schools have consistently lost student population. Projections from West Virginia University predict that trend will continue.
There are a total of 196 students in grades K-6 who attend Paden City Elementary School, while a total of 154 students attend PCHS. Of the total at PCHS, 55 students are in grades seven-eight and 99 students are in grades nine-12. When comparing the four grades, PCHS is the smallest high school in the county.
Many of the speakers March 25 observed a five-minute time limit imposed by protocol at all such meetings. All were respectful and were given standing ovations at the conclusion of their remarks.
The student body-which turned out in full force-took a place at the west end of the gym and remained together throughout the meeting. They did not distract, nor were they distracted-exceptional behavior for teenagers who are asked to sit quietly for more than three hours.
No tempers were lost at the meeting. Yet, some remarks formed the issue in an unseemly "We vs MHS" context. One observer even mused that the CEFP plan was just cover for MHS to get a new cafeteria.
In fact, the CEFP does call for those renovations at MHS, and for renovations at other schools-whether or not PCHS is closed.
There are valid figures that show Paden City schools last year increased in student enrollment from the previous year.
The Wetzel County BOE's own figures show that Paden City schools account for 10.7 percent of county expenditures-the smallest percentage of all county schools, except the 2.7 percent for the Wetzel County Center For Children and Families.
If all of PCHS's students were to attend Tyler County schools, Cornerstone predicts a loss in state aid to Wetzel County of more than $650,000 and a similar gain in funding to Tyler County schools. However, loss of these funds will be offset by the absence of corresponding expenditures.
To back that up, a Cornerstone survey showed that more than 60 percent of parents whose children are now enrolled in Paden City schools would enroll them in Tyler County schools.
In addition, the survey showed that that over 90 percent of Paden City voters would not support future Wetzel County levies, which are contemplated in the board's 10-year CEFP.
There were other facts introduced that showed how PCHS students excel academically. In last year's WesTest2, they were the highest achieving school in math and reading/language arts scores and exceeded the statewide average.
In addition, figures presented by veteran coach and educator Fred King, the PCHS Athletics Director, show an impressive percentage of students are involved in multiple athletic and other extracurricular activities simultaneously.
In the current school year, 72 percent of junior high students participate in extracurricular events and 79 percent of high school students do the same. That history has been consistent over the past six years.
Moreover, King and the athletic department staff prepare and distribute practice and game schedules that try to eliminate conflicts for athletes who compete in multiple activities.
King was the first in the meeting to specifically ask the board to cancel the part of the CEFP about closing PCHS.
Among the more than 30 other speakers was Matt Ferrebee, a parent and president of the Paden City Boosters organization. He brought a list of rhetorical questions to the board, including one that asked why the CEFP calls for installation of new bleachers at the PCHS football field in 2013-one year after its proposed closing.
Also addressing the board was PCHS graduate Eric Croasmun, now at West Liberty State University. Croasmun carries more than 20 class hours and still has time for some seven extracurricular activities. He attributed his ability to do that to his experiences at PCHS.
Cork Bowen of Forward-Thinking Commitment, a Cornerstone pillar, promised to bring back the Paden City students now attending Tyler County schools. That declaration drew a deafening applause, even from board members.
The effort, if successful, would clearly grow the student population and consequently the legislature's contribution through the school aid formula.
Speakers appealed to very strong and real emotions that may have scored points, although board members did not publicly act or react at this meeting. They came to listen.
Paden City Mayor Bill Fox may have best summarized the sense of the residents: "Closing the school will be the death sentence for Paden City." Indeed, studies have shown that communities identify more strongly with their school systems than they do with major employers.
School officials said closing Paden City High School and asking voters to approve more funding is not likely to happen in the near term, while a recovery from the current recession is not in sight and unemployment remains high. In addition, they cite public backlash against perceived out-of-control government spending.
Also, they say, the board is unlikely to do anything before members have opportunity to review a court reporter's verbatim transcript of the March 25 meeting, which is expected within the week.
The CEFP is available for review at the county office building, 333 Foundry St., New Martinsville.