Brooke County School Merger Hearing Held at Colliers Primary

COLLIERS — Turnout was high for the latest in a series of hearings held by the Brooke County school board on the proposed merger of three primary schools into four existing ones.

The cafeteria/gym of Colliers Primary School was nearly filled with parents and other community members and the board heard from more than 20 area residents, many of whom questioned the decision to close the school in the same year it has received national and state honors for academic achievement.

The board has cited declining enrollment, revenue and state funding for staff as reasons for a plan to close Colliers, Beech Bottom and L.B. Millsop primary schools.

All pupils in kindergarten through second grade would be brought together at Hooverson Heights and Wellsburg primary schools and those in third and fourth grades together at Jefferson and Franklin primary schools.

Hooverson Heights and Wellsburg primary schools would be renamed Brooke County Primary North and South, reflecting the areas they would serve, while Jefferson and Franklin primary schools would be renamed Brooke County Intermediate North and South.

The board is expected to consider the merger following a hearing at 6 p.m. Nov. 27 at Jefferson Primary School. The hearing will be the last of seven on the proposal, with the next to be held at 6 p.m. today at Beech Bottom Primary School and 6 p.m. Monday at Millsop Primary School.

Amanda Barker, the mother of children at Colliers, was among those who noted this year the school was one of 324 to be named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education and one of three in West Virginia nominated for the honor. Its principal, Jo-Ellen Connolly, was one of 10 school administrators in West Virginia to receive the Terrel Bell Award, for which leaders of National Blue Ribbon Schools may be nominated.

The school also has been named a West Virginia School of Excellence by the state Department of Education three times in recent years.

“How do you explain rewarding outstanding achievement on a national level by closing that school’s doors?” Barker asked.

She and her husband, Mark, said they moved to Colliers from the Pittsburgh area, where he works, and know of others interested in moving to Colliers because of the school’s reputation.

Superintendent Toni Paesano Shute said, “Being a National Blue Ribbon School is not about bricks and mortar.”

She said the school’s staff may continue to work in other Brooke County schools, where other teachers are equally passionate about education.

Asked about the staff’s chances of being retained in the merger, Assistant Superintendent Nicole Ennis said the school district’s professional staff and service personnel will vote on whether staff at the three closed schools can receive priority when hiring for the four remaining schools, which the state sees as new schools where the hiring process is concerned.

Shute received criticism from attendees when she commented that other Brooke County schools have been named West Virginia Schools of Excellence and Colliers “happened” to receive the national honor. But she said later she knows a lot of hard work went into the school receiving the award.

Shute said she has visited all of the primary schools and has been impressed by the staff at each.

Another resident said it’s true the school’s success “isn’t simply about the building. It’s about the culture of the school and the community. Everything you’re hoping to achieve (at other schools) is here right now, and you’re trying to take it apart and plant it somewhere else.”

Don Stilgenbauer, a local pastor, noted the school district is expected to see a windfall of $7 million through a payment-in-lieu-of-tax agreement with Energy Solutions Consortium, a company planning to build a natural gas-fired power plant near Colliers. He noted the plant is predicted to bring hundreds of construction jobs and employ 40 full-time staff and has been described by county officials as “an economic magnet” that will attract other industries.

Construction of the plant is pending approval by the West Virginia Public Service Commission, which heard from supporters and opponents at a recent hearing; and the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Air Quality, which is accepting public comment on it.

Stilgenbauer also asked if the school’s service area was altered last year, lowering its enrollment.

Rhonda Combs, the school district’s director of pre-K-5 curriculum, confirmed the service area was altered to allow some children in downtown Weirton to attend Millsop Primary, which has had low class sizes.

Rob Robinson, the school district’s facilities supervisor, said Colliers’ enrollment also is below its capacity, with about 46 percent of its available space in use.

School officials were asked about class size if the merger occurs. Stephanie Blundon, director of student services and attendance, said school officials aim for classes of about 20 for kindergarten and 25 for the other elementary grades and will do the same for the new merged schools.

Darlene Brennan, an alumna of the school, asked if an independent study and audit was done before developing the merger plan.

Shute noted the merger arose from the school district’s 10-year comprehensive educational facilities plan, which called for all of the county’s primary schools to be replaced with two for its north and south halves. She said that plan has been delayed because the construction of the new schools would have meant higher taxes, but the proposed merger is seen as a step toward that goal.

COMMENTS