Brooke County School Board Questioned About Merger Plan
BEECH BOTTOM — Brooke County school officials faced more questions Thursday about the decision to close three of the county’s seven elementary schools during a public hearing at Beech Bottom Primary School.
The hearing was the fifth of seven scheduled to accept public comment on a plan to close Beech Bottom, Colliers and L.B. Millsop primary schools. Students in kindergarten through second grade would attend Hooverson Heights and Wellsburg primary schools, while those in third and fourth grades would be sent to Jefferson and Franklin primary schools.
On Thursday the board heard from a few Beech Bottom officials and a Colliers woman who had more questions after Monday’s hearing at Colliers Primary School.
Barbara McVicker of Colliers asked if a financial shortfall led to plans to close the three schools and if it’s been determined how long the school district will be solvent after the closings.
Kimberly Puskarich, the school district’s treasurer, said the school’s five-year operating levy generates about $3 million each year for staff not covered by the state, extracurricular positions and substitutes but those costs have risen to $4.9 million. She said the merger is expected to save the school district about $1 million in staffing costs.
Puskarich said of about 249 professional personnel, including principals and teachers, about 35 are covered by the county, while about 42 of the school district’s 173 service personnel, which includes custodians, cooks and bus drivers, are covered by the county.
McVicker also asked whether the success of schools serving only grades K-2 has been studied.
Rhonda Combs, the school district’s director of pre-K-5 curriculum, said there are schools with only those grades in Marshall and Jackson counties. Combs said the approach will allow teachers of children at the same learning level to work together to meet their needs.
Beech Bottom Mayor Becky Uhlly said the village’s adult residents have longstanding ties to the school, as do those in the other schools’ communities, and the merger will be more difficult for them than the children. But she added the close proximity of a school is among factors considered by businesses looking to open in a community, and she’s concerned the loss of Beech Bottom Primary will hurt the village’s appeal for economic development.
Beech Bottom Councilman Bob Sadler asked about the future of the school buildings and if security measures would remain in place.
Rob Robinson, the school district’s facilities director, said the board hopes to market the buildings to new tenants, as it’s doing with the county’s two middle schools that are being consolidated. He said they will be secured and maintained to ensure they are in good condition to sell.
Beech Bottom Councilman Greg Sheperd had many questions for the board, some of which he presented in writing in advance. He asked why the board would close Beech Bottom Primary when the district’s Comprehensive Facilities Plan indicates it has the lowest gas and electricity costs and one of the lowest water rates in the county.
Robinson said the school’s lower utility costs are due to its size and a high-efficiency boiler system. He added utility costs weren’t included as reasons for the merger, but because they are among data required by the state.
When Sheperd noted Franklin Primary School doesn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Robinson said there are plans to build a ramp between the school’s two floors.
Sheperd also asked why the plan states there will be no change in transportation costs when children from Beech Bottom will be traveling farther to school.
Responding in writing, Ron Staffileno, the school district’s transportation director, said the statement about costs was made because no new drivers will be needed and doesn’t reflect distance traveled by the buses.
Sheperd said the plan states Beech Bottom’s enrollment is 85, but this year the local fire department distributed fire safety information for more than 100 pupils.
Robinson said enrollment figures included in the plan are based on the second month of the current school year and Beech Bottom’s didn’t include the voluntary preschool program operated at the school for children in the south end of the county.
He said its current enrollment, including the preschool, is 103, or just 38 percent of capacity.
Attendees at the Colliers hearing suggested the proposed development of a power plant in the Colliers area could bring additional families and an additional $7 million in revenue, through an payment-in-lieu-of-tax agreement, to the school district.
The project awaits approval by the state Public Service Commission and state Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Air Quality.
Superintendent Toni Shute said in the event that occurs, the remaining four primary schools would have the capacity to address increased enrollment, but the school board must operate within its budget.
The board will hear comments again at hearings to be held at 6 p.m. Monday at Millsop Primary School and at 6 p.m. Nov. 27 at Jefferson Primary School, where it will vote on the merger.