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W.Va. school head plans to retire

December 06, 1996

By RICHARD F. BELISLE

Staff Writer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - James Bennett, Berkeley County's school superintendent since 1993, will announce his retirement Tuesday at a press conference, according to School Board Member Berniece Collis.

Bennett, 61, deferred questions to the school board. He said Friday he has been eligible for retirement for three years.

Collis said Bennett wanted to retire last year but was talked out of it by the school board. "We asked him to stay one more year to get the building program underway," Collis said. "His family wants him to retire now," she said.

Bennett makes $81,000 a year. Collis said a search committee will begin work immediately to find a successor. She said the salary will be negotiable. "We' ll have to see who's out there," she said.

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Collis said the board wants to find a candidate who will continue the work started by Bennett. "He gave us the focus we needed. He got the instruction program on track. We don't want the next one (superintendent) to change a lot of things, just keep us going in the same direction," she said.

School Department spokeswoman Mary Jo Brown called Bennett "a tremendous asset to the school system. He has strong organizational skills and works extremely well with people. The man was liked be everybody in the schools," she said.

Bennett took over the system in the midst of a controversy and was hired on a 3-2 vote by the then school board. His predecessor, J. Sam Meek, was forced out of the job when the makeup of the school board changed by election. Meek had his own problems, including his inheritance of a $2 million budget shortfall that required him to take such controversial moves as ending substitute teacher pay and putting administrators into classrooms.

Bennett was hired for a three-year contract at $75,000 a year. The board upped his salary to $81,000 last year when it extended his contract for one more year.

He has held superintendent posts in Upshur, Harrison and Doddridge counties.

He earned his bachelors degree from Salem College and his masters from West Virginia University.

Much of his time in the last year has been spent getting the county's school building program moving.

The projects, all of which are underway or about complete, include a $15 million replacement high school for Musselman, converting the current Musselman High into a middle school and converting Musselman Middle School into an elementary school for the county's south end.

It also includes construction of a new Potomack Intermediate School now under construction for grades three to five to relieve overcrowding in the Marlowe area as well as expansions to Hedgesville High and Middle schools.

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