Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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May 15, 2013

Bland debates school merger

BLAND, Va. — Approximately 100 parents, teachers and concerned citizens chimed in on a proposal Tuesday that would consolidate Bland County’s two high schools and two elementary schools into one high school, one middle school and one elementary school.

Members of the community attended the last of five public hearings held at the Bland County School Board Offices to discuss consolidating Bland Elementary and Rocky Gap Elementary into one elementary school as well as consolidating Bland High School and Rocky Gap High School into a single middle school and single high school campus.

Rhodes said consolidation is needed because the school is facing decreasing enrollment leading to decreases in state, local and federal funding. Though there was a small increase in enrollment for the 2013-2014 school year, Rhodes said enrollment projections are still down by 5 percent for the county since 2009 and projections for the school system do not present “significant enrollment recovery.”

Additionally, Rhodes said the school system is facing increased operation costs including utilities, fuels for buses as well as health insurance and pensions for employees. Rhodes said the school system is also receiving fewer funds to support federally and state mandated school programs. Due to these increased costs, Rhodes said the school system has lost approximately $1.2 million from state and local funding since 2009. Rhodes said the consolidation would allow the school system to “take care of our own.”

Colene Pauley of Bland spoke out against the proposed consolidation.

“I don't think this plan will work,” she said. “I think it will be disastrous. You will tear the county apart. I hate to see this coming.”

Guy Boone of Bastian, Va., said he was anti-consolidation and asked the board to look closely at the firm that had been selected to evaluate the consolidation the school system.

Rachelle Whipp of Wytheville, Va., said she has been teaching in Bland County for 23 years and has a daughter currently attending a school in Bland County.

“I don't see this issue as a Bland issue or a Rocky Gap issue,” Whipp said. “I see it as a what is best for all the kids of Bland County. I personally think if we can offer them more we should do it. If consolidation is the way we can do that I support your decision. Personally, I think consolidation is the best choice in the given situation. It is paramount we can consider the enhancements to programs and course offerings. If we can improve the education and courses we are offering these kids it is something we should do.”

Leslie Barrett of Rocky Gap, Va., is a teacher and also asked the board to consider consolidation.

“I know your task ahead of you is a difficult one and this issue has been under discussion for quite some time,” Barrett said. “The paramount focus here should be our students and the children in Bland County. I have lived in Rocky Gap for 15 years and have taught at Bland Elementary. This is just a win-win situation for our students and their futures. I agree with consolidation. If we can provide something more for our students under the budgetary problems everyone is facing I think it is incumbent upon us to do that. Whatever your decision is, it should be for the students of Bland County. We need to give them every opportunity possible with what we have within Bland County.”

Tiffany Carter, a teacher with the school system, also spoke in favor of consolidation.

“I support consolidation because I feel it will give our students their best opportunity to succeed,” she said. “I also believe it will also use all of my colleagues to their best of their ability. This is the benefit of children on both sides of the mountain. I feel wherever I am placed is where I should be and I am dedicated for those children.”

C.L. Faulkner of Bland said he had concerns about how the school system would select teachers if the consolidation.

“I am for consolidation, but the only thing that concerns me is the students. Let's keep the students as our first thought. If teachers are cut, let's make sure we get it right. A teacher with a bachelor's degree might be better equipped than a teacher with a Ph.D. A teacher who has been here 20 years might not be as qualified as one who has just come into the area.”

Buddy Caroll of Rocky Gap spoke in favor of consolidation to unite the county.

“This has got to be done for Bland County,” Carroll said. “We get people from both sides of this mountain together. The foundation of our county is the education of our youth. To do that, get these kids together in athletics, academics and everything.”

Cameron Burton of Bland said she was a parent of students in the county and felt consolidation should be pursued regardless of the issues that arise.

“I think it will be difficult. Problems will come up that we will not foresee. But we will adapt. You already have faced opposition, but you will not be able to appease everyone. Of course, the greatest man who walked this earth couldn't please his 12 closest friends.”

They adjourned without a vote on the consolidation issue and will meet again on May 29 at 5 p.m. at the school board offices.

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