By SAMANTHA PERRY
Leaky ceilings. Weak test scores. Facilities in unbelievable disrepair. How does a school system reach this point — a low point among lows — that mandates a takeover by the state?
Posing the question to former McDowell County School Superintendent Dr. Mark Manchin during an editorial board session at the Bluefield Daily Telegraph last week, the man charged with moving the school system in a new direction slowly shook his head.
“It would not have been tolerated elsewhere,” said Manchin, who was appointed by the state to turn the school system around five years ago.
Not long after he was appointed to run the school system, Manchin said he visited Switchback Elementary, which was hosting a program to honor a young boy who had saved a family member during a house fire.
The event was held in the gymnasium, and Manchin said he first noticed all the students on hand were wearing their winter coats.
Then, he felt “a drip” on his shoulder.
A few minutes later, more drips.
Looking up, he saw a hole in the ceiling. Buckets had been placed around the gym to catch the water.
“Where was the outrage?” Manchin asked.
Sadly, Manchin said many people in the community simply accepted the horrific condition of some of the schools.
But no matter where one lives — in McDowell, Mercer, Monroe or Marion — the community can, and must, expect more from those charged with educating the county’s youth.
When he came to McDowell County in 2001, Manchin faced an uphill battle.
The audit report leading to the state takeover found 260 deficiencies in schools across the county. The news reverberated across the state in giant headlines and reports on the evening news.
It was a blow to the people of the county, who had faced a multitude of economic and social challenges in recent years.
While there were a few quiet whispers from those believing a better education for their children could be on the horizon, many others resented the state’s audacity in “taking over” their school system.
Arriving on the scene, Manchin acknowledged at times he had to carry the figurative “big stick.”
During his first meeting with top officials from each school, Manchin said he asked the group about the end of World War II. Several in the group raised their hands, and the new superintendent asked one to relate the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the school principal detailed the occupation of Japan by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Manchin said he told the group, “Well, you can consider yourselves Japan, and consider me Douglas MacArthur.”
During his tenure in McDowell County, the superintendent faced a host of challenges, including natural disasters, battles over school consolidation and a scandal involving a school purchasing official.
In another incident, a former employee was convicted of sexual-related crimes.
Manchin recalled the day when law enforcement officials came to the school board office to inform him they were planning to arrest the employee.
That afternoon, after officers took the employee into custody, Manchin said he asked, “What else can go wrong?”
He received his answer a few days later when floods ripped through the county, damaging 13 schools and destroying Panther Elementary.
“I never asked that again,” Manchin said.
The son of famed West Virginia lawmaker the late A. James Manchin, Dr. Mark Manchin had a childhood unlike most others.
A constant companion to his father, he was a witness to key events in West Virginia’s history, such as the Kennedy family’s tour across the state when John F. was campaigning for presidency and Sen. Robert Byrd’s first campaign rally.
However it was a personal moment, not political, Manchin remembered when asked what events in his life shaped him and gave him the fortitude to take on formidable tasks.
Manchin recalled an incident that occurred during the 1950s when he was about 7 years old. His father was a basketball coach, and one night their school played another team that had an African-American player.
A few people in the stand became rowdy and began hurling racial insults.
Manchin, a water boy for the team, said his father stopped the game, walked to mid-court, called out the offenders and told them to stop or they would be thrown out.
Ultimately, they were kicked out. And later that night a cross was burned in Manchin’s front yard.
Despite the backlash against his family, Manchin proudly remembered his father’s courage in standing up for what was right.
On Monday, Dr. Manchin begins his new job as executive director of the West Virginia School Building Authority, and long-time McDowell County educator Jeff Nash will begin his duties as interim superintendent of the school system.
Manchin praised Nash, calling him “a great asset to McDowell County,” and said he is the right person to lead the school system through its next transition.
While McDowell County schools have made tremendous improvements in recent years, Manchin said there is still a vast amount of work ahead.
He called on the newspaper and those in the community to be vigilant in coming years, and demand top-notch schools and a quality education for their children.
Manchin’s job in McDowell County may be complete, but there is much work ahead for administrators, teachers, students, staff and the community.
Now the question is, do we have the courage to make it work?
Samantha Perry is managing editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.