Harrison County school consolidation halted following denial of SBA funding

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — The Harrison County Board of Education is putting a halt on its plan to consolidate Wilsonburg and Adamston elementary schools and relocate them to the former Gore Middle School, which currently houses United High School, after the state School Building Authority declined to fund the project.

The SBA made announcement of its funded projects Monday, a total of over $72 million worth of projects. But of the 19 counties to receive funding, Harrison County was not on the list.

“Right now, I’m disappointed. I wish we would have got funding,” Harrison County Superintendent Dr. Mark Manchin said during an appearance on WAJR Clarksburg’s “The Gary Bowden Show.” “But other schools did get funded. I was happy for some of the counties that had not been funded in the past that were able to get funding this time. We’ll move forward, and we’ll take it from here.”

Manchin, who has previously served as the executive director of the School Building Authority himself, said he’s understanding of the difficult process.

“I heard they had $130 million worth of requests. I know that very well,” he said. “When I was the executive director, we had well over $200 or $250 million worth of requests, so there’s a lot of people who don’t get funded. It’s not necessarily because it’s a bad project. There’s different focuses, there’s different priorities, and this selection (process) was a little different than what I’m particularly used to.”

That different process, Manchin said, was the matter of having public hearings on the matter before having funding in hand.

Harrison County Board of Education held multiple public hearings on the matter, some raising public outcry on the possibility of consolidation.

“Now they’re suggested that you have school hearings prior to the funding, and those are contentious and sometimes very difficult, particularly for locally elected boards of education,” he said. “Nobody feels good about closing the schools, so when there’s no guarantee you’re even going to get funded to go through that whole process and not get funded, I think it’s to be frank with you ridiculous.”

Manchin blamed that change on involvement from the state Board of Education.

“I’ll be frank with you, I didn’t understand it. They changed the protocol. I think the state board of education has become a little more involved in this process than traditionally they have,” he said. “18-9D of the West Virginia Code clearly establishes the School Building Authority who makes that determination. I think that we’re finding that the state board of education is becoming a little more active in this whole process. I don’t know if that’s for the good or for the bad. That can be debated.”

While the public hearings were contested, Manchin did hold meetings prior to that with faculty of both Adamston and Wilsonburg elementary schools, which he said he felt were productive.

“Obviously there’s some concern. There’s concern about their job. Change is never easy,” he said. “That’s why to go through this whole process prior to the funding, prior to the funding, is absolutely ridiculous, and to require that you have all the hearings and all that and then turn around and maybe not get funded? To put people through these issues? I’ve got a real issue with that, and I’ll continue to address that at the state level.”

Although the consolidation is put on pause, Manchin said there’s still concerns that are pressing, particularly the aging Wilsonburg Elementary School that’s long past due for updates.

“Like any aging facility, we must continue to address it and address it in ways that make our employees and our students safe,” he said. “The infrastructure doesn’t allow for a 21st Century education, and I think that’s a great disservice to these students.

“What we would have done with the $8.5 million that we would have utilized at the new United High School and new elementary school, the infrastructure would’ve been wiring, whiteboards and all of the bells and whistles that today’s education demands but we can’t utilize in these small rural schools, but obviously there’s 55 counties, and many counties are facing similar to what we are.”

United High School, which functions as an alternative school for at-risk students will also continue to move forward, even without the funding, Manchin said.

“In many instances they’re successful there, and other ones will not be successful,” he said. “I think it’s going very very well, and we’re very proud of that. We’re going to continue that program regardless of the venue.”

While some students end up at United High School in the Phoenix Program for students who have been expelled or the Evolution Program for students who have discipline issues, a majority of its student body are students there by choice. It could be that they need a smaller class size, that social atmosphere of a typical school does not bode well for them or that they simply don’t fit in.

Whatever the reason, Manchin said, not addressing that creates a high risk of dropouts.

“In fact five years ago, well over 130 students dropped out of Harrison County Schools. Last year, 12 or 13 dropped out, and a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that we’re recognizing the issues that they face and we have an alternative setting for them,” he said. “A large numbers over at United High School are students who voluntary go over there for smaller class sizes and they’re able to be successful where in many issues they probably would not have been.”

And while consolidation may be off the table for now, Manchin said that doesn’t mean they can’t reapply next school year.

“Probably this summer, the Board and I will sit down again,” he said. “It’s quite conceivable to resubmit this project just as it is or take a look at something else. I don’t know. The board has asked me to make recommendations. Right now, we’ll take a step back and move forward this winter and spring.”

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