State school board OKs closing Valley Head in Randolph

West Virginia Board of Education members agreed Thursday to close an elementary school with fewer than 30 students in Randolph County.

Board members also identified some finalists in the search for the next state schools superintendent, although they didn’t immediately name them after meeting in closed session for about an hour. Board President Tom Campbell said the finalists will be contacted, asked if they still want the job and given a chance to inform their current employers before their names are publicly revealed.

Campbell didn’t say how many finalists there were, but did say there were eight in-state applicants and four-out-of-state applicants. Board attorney Mary Catherine Tuckwiller said two applicants were deemed unqualified.

The board plans to meet on March 23 for interviews with the candidates, Campbell said.

Thursday’s vote to close Valley Head Elementary, which has 27 students, was a voice vote with no nays heard. The students will be transferred to George Ward Elementary at the start of next school year.

The vote came after board members heard about and discussed the ways the state school aid funding formula differentiates — and doesn’t differentiate — the amount of money distributed to counties based on population density.

Campbell sought to contrast Randolph County (a large county with relatively few students) with Hancock County (a small county with high student population density) at a meeting last week. On Thursday, Amy Willard, executive director of the state Office of School Finance, explained how the funding formula affects those two counties.

Randolph County school board members already voted to close the school, but the state school board has to sign off on such decisions. State board members heard from and questioned Randolph school officials for another hour.

“What I hoped to see was a very precise, comprehensive evaluation of why they were where they were and to see if there were any alternatives,” said Campbell, an opponent of past consolidations who had pushed for more information about whether there was any way to avoid closing the school.

“The only alternative we could find would have been prospective, as in if the Legislature did this, or if the Legislature did that — you could never predict what they would or would not do,” Campbell said after the vote. The Legislature establishes how the state aid funding formula works.

“What I was insistent on last time was a full vetting,” Campbell said. “We got a full vetting.”

Heather Hutchens, general counsel for the state Department of Education, said a state Supreme Court case out of Kanawha County did establish that the state school board can deny school closings for reasons other than a failure by the local school board to follow the state-law-mandated closure process.

Willard said Randolph’s school system is funding about 28 employee positions out of local funds this fiscal year because the state aid formula won’t pay for them. The formula largely doles out money based on enrollment, with things like the density calculation a consideration as well.

State school board member Barbara Whitecotton asked Willard if she believes Randolph needs to decrease that 28 number in order to be financially stable. “Yes, I believe that in order for them to avoid a deficit, they would have to reduce the number of personnel for which they have no other funding source,” Willard replied.

Randolph schools Superintendent Pam Hewitt said Randolph County last closed schools in 1976. One of her system’s documents showed that enrollment there had dropped by 2,000 over the past 30 years, and now stands at 3,093 students.

Valley Head has split grade classrooms, meaning multiple grade levels of students are being taught by the same teacher.

“I think in the long run this is what’s best for kids,” state board member Miller Hall said of the closure. “Having 26 kids, and over the next four or five years, gaining four or five more, I don’t think that’s where you need to be.”

School Principal Melissa Wilfong, who said she’s in her sixth year as principal of the school and 22nd year working there overall, was emotional after the vote and declined comment. Supporters of keeping the school open had praised its small size.

“I expected justice here,” George Coussoule, another supporter of keeping the school open, said after the vote. “And I’m so disappointed we didn’t get it.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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