The West Virginia Board of Education voted Wednesday to close three Wood County elementary schools: McKinley, Waverly and Worthington.
Supporters of Waverly Elementary expressed concerns about longer bus rides and other issues. They also noted that the school bond notice on Wood County’s ballot didn’t specifically say that Waverly would close.
The Wood County Board of Education voted in October to close the schools.
Public school closings require the state board to sign off, except if county residents directly approve those closings in a vote. That provision was part of Wednesday’s controversy.
Most people who spoke during Wednesday’s public comment period — including Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, and Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood — opposed the closure of Waverly, whose students will attend a new Williamstown-Waverly Elementary.
“This board should look at rural schools and see that they are the backbone of this state,” Boley said.
According to Wood schools Superintendent Will Hosaflook and Heather Hutchens, general counsel for the state Department of Education, language saying specifically that Waverly Elementary would close was inadvertently left out of the written call for a school bond election. Counties use these elections to ask voters to raise property tax rates to pay back debts for certain projects, often building projects.
However, the written call for that 2016 election, which was successful, did state that Williamstown Elementary would close and a new school called Williamstown-Waverly Elementary would be built, according to a copy of the document that Hosaflook provided.
Hosaflook said that new school is already under construction, and it’s planned to open at the start of next school year.
Miller Hall was the only state school board member to vote no on the Wood closings.
Board member Jim Wilson was the only one absent. Before the vote, board President Dave Perry read a statement he said was from Wilson.
“Local boards [of education] spend hours examining educational concerns, budget, community concerns, and much more,” the statement said. “After careful deliberation, a vote is taken by the elected representatives of the people of the county involved. Whatever the result, it should take an egregious departure from proper procedures for the state board to overturn the decision of the local board.”
Under the new Wood school plan, Worthington’s kindergarten through fifth-graders will attend Emerson Elementary. McKinley’s students in those grades will attend Jefferson Elementary Center. Both of those moves will start next school year.
Hosaflook said enrollment has been declining, and the school system doesn’t have enough money to keep the same number of schools open without cutting in other areas, such as staff.
State board member Tom Campbell, as he has often done, criticized the predominantly enrollment-based state school funding formula.
“If there’s not a change in the way West Virginia funds education, we’re going to see every county in here every year,” Campbell said.
State board member Debra Sullivan said sometimes issues before the board are “crystal clear,” but regarding the Wood issue, she said “sometimes the necessary thing is maybe not the right thing.”
The fight over Waverly Elementary’s closure may not be over. Before Wednesday’s vote, Fred Clark, a supporter of the school, passed out a draft lawsuit that seeks to keep it open.
The county and state school boards and their superintendents would be the defendants, according to the draft.
Enrollment numbers fluctuate annually. In Wood County, overall public school enrollment has dropped every year for the past decade, falling about 1,100 students to drop to 12,400 students early last school year.
Early last school year, Waverly had 132 students, Worthington had 194 and McKinley had 256.