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tim rowland 1/21/01

January 19, 2001

To ease pain of school mergers, level with the public



Ten years ago I was driving through some of the backest of West Virginia's backwaters with a member of the state's newly created School Building Authority.

From the Tygert River Valley south of Elkins we drove over two mountains on a twisting dirt road, past several coal-mine heads and through dense forests and terribly steep grades until we arrived at our destination - a tiny, pale-green cinderblock school near the village of Pickens.

The authority member was checking to see if there was any good reason not to shut down Pickens and send the kids over the two mountains every day to Elkins.

Eating lunch at a small restaurant, we noticed a newspaper story tacked to the wall about school consolidation. Extensively highlighted in yellow were the authority member's name and his quotes telling how he did not believe the school at Pickens could be saved.

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When the waitress returned, we inquired about the story. Instantly her eyes turned to fire and she indicated that if she were ever to meet this school board authority member in person she would, basically, rip his lungs out of his throat.

After she stormed off to the kitchen we sat in silence for a while. Pushing my sauerkraut around on my plate I finally looked up and said "Gonna tell her?"

He considered briefly before muttering "No, best not."

The advantage the School Building Authority had where consolidation was concerned was that its members, being appointed, weren't directly answerable to an angry public.

As Washington County prepares to float its ship on the seas of consolidation, our elected school board members and County Commissioners are not so insulated. That means, of course, that there may be times when they will be tempted to strike a balance between doing what's popular and doing what's right. There also will be times, as appears to be the case with Cascade Elementary, that there are very good arguments on both sides of the issue and no easy answers.

What's crucial at this point is that the board and the commissioners develop an atmosphere of openness and trust.

If Cascade loses its school, the people will not be happy. But if the elected officials can explain clearly and convincingly that, for example, the money saved will go toward better salaries that will keep better teachers in the classrooms, the pill might not be so hard to swallow.

Unfortunately, for all intents and purposes, the board's first public comment on consolidation is that no consolidation plan exists. Their comments were almost laughable: The board hasn't taken an official stand. No report has been approved by the committee. We've never seen any document at all.

Of course if called on these statements, they could get off the hook by insisting that, technically, they had not in fact "officially" considered a plan, or "seen" the report that a staff member is reading from or "approved" the report that no one has seen.

If you're Bill Clinton, that may be the type of language you use while dealing with Paula Jones. But that is about the poorest way imaginable to build trust within the community - a well of trust you will have to tap into to sell any consolidation plan to the parents of Washington County.

This week the PTAs took the board to task for failing to include a parent on its consolidation committee that is currently reviewing all these consolidation plans that don't exist. The PTAs are right.

Consolidation is needed to refocus school system dollars into the areas where they can be spent most efficiently. Yet meaningful consolidation will fail if officials wall themselves within the central office then try to shove their plans down the people's throat in a series of public hearings at which they really don't want to listen.

If the board shuts out the people, the people will begin to see a conspiracy behind every chalkboard and a flaw beneath every desk. And not without reason.

The saving grace so far has been County Commissioners John Schnebly and Bill Wivell, who also sit on the consolidation committee and have been up-front with the public about what's going on. They've talked, on the record, about the plans and their openness should prevent too much public concern that there's a lot of back-room skullduggery going on.

This time the commissioners have saved the school board from itself, at least for the time being. But the board needs to get into open-and-honest mode itself, and soon.

New board members Roxanne Ober and Bernadette Wagner ran, in part, on a platform of better board-parent communications. Now we get to see if they meant it.

Wagner said it's been suggested the board form a committee to explore how communications could be improved. No offense, but when it's hot inside, you don't form a committee to explore how the window should be opened. You just open the window.

PTA president Jenny Belliotti told the board "When the public speaks they should be answered...and encouraged to be part of the solution, not treated as a nuisance or ignored."

Anyone who believes it takes a committee to explore the truth of that statement shouldn't be sitting on an elected board of education.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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