FAYETTEVILLE — The Fayette County Board of Education is in the final stages of updating the county's 10-year Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan, and the final product could eventually wind up including the closure of four current elementary schools.
Anna Kincaid-Cline, the school system's associate superintendent of curriculum/technology/instruction, briefed board members and Superintendent Gary Hough on the update in a public hearing late last month. No vote was taken on any specific school situations during the hearing; it was simply to explain the amendments to the CEFP. At the subsequent regular board meeting that night, the board voted 5-0 to approve the CEFP.
If school closures are initiated by the board further down the line, public hearings must be scheduled to address them.
According to the School Building Authority website, sba.wv.gov, county boards of education are required by law to have an approved 10-year CEFP active and on file with the W.Va. Department of Education and the SBA. A timeline on the SBA website says amended CEFPs have to be submitted to the WVDE by Dec. 31 for review and state board approval. Submission to the SBA and authority approval should occur by Jan. 29, 2021.
"Since the last planning cycle concluded in 2010, several counties have amended their CEFP to reflect completed projects and changes in the educational philosophy adopted by the local board," reads an entry on the SBA website. "However, county boards are required to revisit all previous data and formulate a new CEFP every 10 years."
Before diving into her presentation, Kincaid-Cline thanked the committee (representatives from the county's three high school attendance zones) that performed "very diligent" work on the plan over the past year. Architect ZMM undertook a review of existing buildings, the committee evaluated the old CEFP, and updated documents were written with assistance from many in the central office, including her office staff, and at the state level.
"The first thing I really want to emphasize is this particular CEFP is very different than others, because it's very heavy on the maintenance and upkeep of our facilities," said Kincaid-Cline. "In the past, we had a lot of discussion about which buildings we were going to close." The recent CEFP meetings were centered more on "what do we need to do educationally and then how do our buildings support or not support that. Now, (we are) looking at 13 buildings instead of a lot more that we couldn't manage."
One of the buildings discussed during her report was Gauley Bridge Elementary, a kindergarten to 5th grade school which is recommended for closure in the CEFP (with the students moving to Valley PK-8). The GBES enrollment dipped to 92 in "the year that we made our closures (when) we had several students choose to go to Valley PK-8," and the Pre-K was moved from Gauley to Valley during the closure process, Kincaid-Cline noted. Current enrollment for the school, which was built in 1976, is 79.
Citing factors such as an impact on student achievement and the lack of jobs in Gauley Bridge, board member Steve Slockett said, "If we close Gauley Bridge, and I see all the reasons written in here, ... I have concerns because the kids are achieving at a pretty high level, and I understand the reason is small class size. It's not because we have any smarter kids at Gauley Bridge or any better teachers, it's because of small class sizes."
"The only thing that community has is their school, and their kids are achieving," he added. "Even though we have plans to improve academics at Valley Elementary (PK-8), we haven't achieved those yet. I'm troubled, I'm conflicted because I know those kids are getting a better education than the average elementary kid in the county. As a businessman, I also understand the fiscal responsibility that I have."
Kincaid-Cline said there is "not just a single reason" to recommend the GBES closure. She cited several factors besides decreased enrollment, such as a "high energy usage index (EUI)" for a 1976 building, and "the HVAC is at the end of its life expectancy." The school is "going to have to have a roof replacement to stay open, and going to have to have HVAC to stay open; there are all kinds of things you've got to do to the building for, right now, 79 students. That's where we're at right now, 79 students."
Small enrollment doesn't allow fully addressing student mental health issues, she stressed. "They get a nurse one day a week, they get a counselor one day a week." In addition, programs like art, music and health are short-changed because of the lack of more full-time staff.
Slockett said he hasn't surveyed people in the community, but his gut feeling is likely "they'd rather have their school in split grades, ... but they want their school."
The "emotional response" of wanting to keep a community school open aside, the facts don't support that in the Gauley Bridge scenario, said Kincaid-Cline.
"It was hard for me to write the closure documents for Valley High School ...," she continued. "(Pointing to Mount Hope as an example) Communities come together, no matter what we do, communities come together to support their group.
"Even if at some point down the road the board votes to close Gauley Bridge Elementary as is written in this CEFP, that community will support its kids. They will follow those kids; they will do what is best for those kids. And (in curriculum situations) we will do all we can to make sure that they get the best education they can, regardless where their building is."
Slockett later made a motion that the GBES closure recommendation be removed from the CEFP until the people in the community could receive more information. The motion died for lack of a second.
The CEFP recommendations also include eventually shuttering Ansted and Divide elementary schools and moving those students and staff into a new elementary school on the campus of Midland Trail High/Middle School. The SBA pegs replacement costs for that facility at $15,472,800, but funding has yet to be committed. A prioritized list of projects puts an anticipated completion date of 2024 on that new school. The fourth affected elementary school listed in the CEFP update is Meadow Bridge, which will close to move into a new regional school along with Meadow Bridge High School, a project which is already in the planning stages and for which funding is committed.
Leading the list of priority projects in the CEFP are roof replacements at Valley PK-8 and the Fayette Institute of Technology, planned for 2021. Board member Gary Ray suggested that $5,750,000 budgeted for improvements at county high school athletic facilities — listed as potentially being completed by 2029 — possibly be moved up in the timeline. While acknowledging the importance of improvements on the academic side, Ray said, "We don't want to leave this part (athletics) behind."
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