Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

February 12, 2014

A lot has changed over the years, but support still strong for McDowell Schools

— — Voters in McDowell County are being asked this Saturday to decide an excess school levy. The existing levy has been in place since 1942, and is renewed every five years. It has historically been supported by the voters of McDowell County, and this Saturday shouldn’t be an exception.

The levy is important for a number of reasons. It provides funding for everything from textbooks for students to teacher salaries. It was in place when both my sister and I attended school in McDowell County many years ago. Back in the day, we didn’t have computers in the classroom. We had to carry the old-fashioned textbooks to and from our locker. There were no tablets or notebooks of an electronic nature used in the classroom. We didn’t have school resource officers, and there were no security cameras in the hallways or on individual school buses. The emerging technology of the time was the Atari 2600, which was all the rage for we kids back in the day.

Many of our schools at the time were aging facilities. Anawalt was one of the older structures in the county, as was the neighboring elementary school in Switchback. Both have since been shuttered, along with the old Northfork Middle School just across the mountain. Most of the aging facilities were closed during the last 12 years or so and several were replaced with new state-of-the-art facilities. This was all a part of the decade-old flood proofing plan that was launched by the local and state board back in 2001 in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state School Building Authority. Several were ordered closed by former school superintendent and now former SBA Director Dr. Mark Manchin simply due to their age and deteriorating conditions. The old elementary school in Anawalt was just recently demolished.

A lot has certainly changed over the years. And with this change has come an increased cost to the school system. But much of that expense is covered by the levy. For example, it provides $1.8 million a year to maintain and improve all school facilities and grounds. It also covers funding for school resource officers at Mount View and River View high schools and $200,000 a year for capital improvements and school grounds. The levy also allocates another $1 million a year to provide instructional materials, supplies, equipment, furniture, textbooks, technology equipment and software, and the maintenance of technology equipment. So, as you can see, this voter-approved revenue source is clearly critical to the local school system.

Also helpful is recent word of a $7 million SBA award to help get the long-delayed Iaeger Elementary School project rolling. The site work for the new school began last year, and then was stopped due to bureaucratic red tape. And then late last year a part of the parking lot at the old  Iaeger Elementary School partially collapsed into the Tug Fork River. The kids from the old Iaeger Elementary are currently attending school at River View High School.

But the $12 million project is finally back on track. School Superintendent Nelson Spencer says the site preparation work is almost finished. He estimates that construction on the new elementary school should begin in April, and will take about 14 months to complete. Swope Construction from Bluefield has been selected as the general contractor for the project. But before construction can begin on the new facility, the existing Iaeger Elementary — also an aging facility with multiple structural problems — must be demolished. The bank that collapsed into the Tug Fork River also must be stabilized. The new school will be constructed on a site near — but not at the same exact location — where the old Iaeger Elementary is currently located.

As someone who has written the majority of the stories about this long, 14-year journey for McDowell County Schools, it is rewarding to report that construction on the last school funded by the decade-old flood proofing project is now nearing a beginning. It has been a long and, at times, tumultuous journey. Not to bring up old wounds, but I still remember writing about some of the controversy, including the battle on the local school board when it appeared — at least for a brief period of time — that the millions in federal flood proofing dollars would be rejected. And then there was a lot of concern in the Big Creek District of the county — and a lot of interviews that I did with the late War Mayor Tom Hatcher — over the community’s ultimately unsuccessful fight to save the old Big Creek High School.

But all of that has since passed. The school system is now moving in the right direction. Old schools have been replaced by new state-of-the-art facilities. Wounds that once divided a community have now been replaced by community pride in the new River View Raiders. And, once again, a school system that has been gone through a tremendous journey over the past 14 years is turning to its citizens for help. Now is not the time to reverse course. The levy has been in place since 1942. It should continue.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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