CIRCLEVILLE ? This is how a tiny mountain town ended up with three gymnasiums and three public kitchens within 50 yards of each other, all in the name of saving money. Twelve years ago, county school officials said they had to close historic Circleville K-12 School to cut costs. It?s a relic from the 1930s, they said. It?s expensive to maintain and doesn?t meet the needs of children anymore. Besides, the state School Building Authority wouldn?t give the county money unless it consolidated schools, they said. After a bitter court battle, they closed Circleville in 1998. They built a new elementary nearby ? close enough that a sixth-grader could throw a baseball and hit their old school. They sent the junior and senior high students to Franklin, after building an addition and renovating the high school there. Cost: $9.2 million, paid almost entirely by the state School Building Authority. While they were building the new elementary school, they ran short of money. They had to cut the size of the gymnasium in half. ?No fair,? local parents cried. They had been promised a full-sized gym. They turned to their state representative, who happens to be Finance Committee chairman of the House of Delegates. BGCOLOR="#75bce4">
He found state money to build the kitchen and gymnasium that now bears his name, the Harold K. Michael Community Building. It stands between the old school and the new one. Cost: more than $600,000 from the state Budget Digest. Meanwhile, community volunteers like Dot Bennett worked to bring the old school back to its former glory. Earlier this month, she showed visitors the results. They polished the wooden gym floors and painted the old bleachers gleaming white and green, and installed new kitchen equipment in the old home economics room. With some additional work, the building soon will meet all fire and safety codes, Bennett said. Cost: about $200,000, from grants, local fund-raisers and state funds. ?They said it would cost millions to fix this building,? Bennett said. She waved her hand at the gymnasium ceiling, at the new lights and paint. ?Look what we?ve been able to do with so little.? Twelve years ago, county officials estimated it would cost $6.6 million to build a new Circleville School. They never estimated how much it would cost to renovate the old building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. ?That?s outrageous not to even explore all of the options,? said Constance Beaumont of the National Trust of Historic Places. ?It?s heartbreaking, as well as wasteful.? Other states have discovered they can save millions through renovations and still give students a modern school, she said. During the closure debate, Clacy Williams, executive director of the state School Building Authority, said the building was a firetrap. You could start a fire by dropping a match on its wooden floors, he said. Jerry Myers, a school architect in Idaho, has renovated several schools with wooden floors and met fire codes. Even replacing the floors could be cheaper than building something new, he said. Bennett isn?t a construction expert. But she?s convinced that county officials were so determined to close Circleville, they didn?t want to ask if renovation was possible. ?If we could?ve gotten the money they?ve spent on these other buildings, we would?ve had the Taj Mahal here,? she said. ?It?s a shame it had to happen. If they had any sense, it wouldn?t have,? she said. No savings, few new classes In the last decade, Pendleton County school officials closed one high school and two elementary schools. The survival of the school system depended on consolidation, they said, to cut costs and improve curriculum for students. But predictions of big savings have failed to come true. They?ve cut only three staff members, when they promised to cut 10. Meanwhile, student enrollment has dropped by almost 200 students, the equivalent of four loaded school buses. County officials are trying to explain the falling enrollment. Hanover Shoe, the county?s biggest employer, shut its doors two years ago. Also, about 70 North Fork Valley students who would have attended Circleville drive or take a bus to schools in other counties, such as Petersburg High in Grant County. To keep up with the student decline, Superintendent Ken Price should have laid off 20 more staff members. The school board can?t fire anyone else, he said. The bus still has to run to the end of the hollow, even if it only picks up one child. The new North Fork Elementary still needs two cooks, even though it has 100 fewer students than the old Circleville K-12. School officials also promised to cut maintenance and utilities spending in half after the consolidation. Instead, the county spends a higher percent of its budget on operational costs. The new buildings have modern heat and air conditioning, which cost more to maintain, Price said. The promised world-class curriculum never materialized, either. In one document, school officials promised to provide 25 new advanced courses in the new high school, including Latin, Japanese, and science courses from astronomy to zoology. This year, the high school offers only one of those courses ? drama. The school has no Advanced Placement classes, despite promises to offer five. Soon after the consolidation, some Pendleton High students took Latin and Japanese through satellite classes. Those same classes would have been available at Circleville, which had one of the state?s first satellite classrooms. Earlier this month, the new Pendleton High principal, Doug Lambert, looked at the promised list of courses. He shook his head and laughed. ?This is a pretty aggressive schedule,? he said. ?I?d be surprised if any high school in the state offered all this.? The North Fork Express Many of Circleville?s parents and students didn?t give up when their school closed in 1998. Instead, they seceded. On a recent summer morning, Dot Bennett?s husband, Fay, fired up the North Fork Express. ?Bus No. 1929? is painted on the side ? that?s the year local volunteers built the first Circleville School with their own hands. Fay Bennett followed the North Fork River downstream and picked up 30 students on the way to Petersburg. It?s almost unheard of in West Virginia for students to cross county lines to attend school. But the state makes an exception for students here, because they are so isolated. Parents pay $20 a month, but that doesn?t pay all the bills. The Bennetts spend some of their own money to keep the bus running. ?This is a non-profit venture, very nonprofit,? Dot Bennett said. Fay Bennett?s drive to Petersburg takes almost as long as the ride to Franklin, where students normally would attend Pendleton County High School. But there?s one big difference ? the 3,592-foot North Fork Mountain stands between North Fork and Franklin. On the North Fork Express, the windows may rattle, Fay Bennett said, and the 1986 International only gets nine miles per gallon. But it doesn?t have to drive over that mountain every day. ?This old bus is slow, but we?ve only got two little hills and don?t need to go fast,? he said. Last January on that mountain, a tractor-trailer careened toward a Pendleton County school bus full of North Fork children. The bus driver swerved up an embankment and avoided a head-on collision. But several children were seriously hurt. One girl is still recovering at home. Ashley Bennett, 18, rode that bus on the day it wrecked. (Ashley is no relation to Fay and Dot Bennett.) ?They promised if the roads were bad, we wouldn?t go over the mountain. Well, they?ve gone over on days when the buses were sliding backward with chains in the snow,? she said. ?It?s been so bad, you couldn?t tell if you were on the road or off the road.? School officials also promised that North Fork students wouldn?t ride the bus more than 15 to 25 additional minutes a day. But in good weather, buses take half an hour to drive the 17 miles from Circleville to Franklin. The average Pendleton County bus run is longer than an hour, according to county bus logs. And elementary school students have to wait for the high school students before they can go home. They arrive at North Fork Elementary at least half an hour early and leave at least half an hour after school ends. County officials once said they?d be able to drive the elementary children home separately, shortening their bus rides. Amy Harper, 15, of Seneca Rocks decided to ride the North Fork Express. She likes Petersburg; she?s treated well there. But the bus ride is still long, and she has time to participate in only one extracurricular activity, Future Farmers of America. If Circleville were still open, Harper says she might have tried out for the basketball team, or the cheerleading squad. She might have helped teach first- graders how to read. ?I?d love to have Circleville back,? she said. ?You knew everybody. It was like family. We?d all like to be back at Circleville.? To contact staff writers Eric Eyre and Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.