Schools growing rapidly

July 25, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny Arvon somehow manages to eat lunch, attend meetings and return phone calls, despite the fact that population growth in the county forces him to oversee construction of a new school every year.

On Friday, he was at the site of Spring Mills Middle School, where finishing touches nearly are complete. Furniture should arrive soon.

Built to hold 750 students, the school will open Aug. 26 with 500 students.

"We purposely set that number (750) because when you visit the school, you'll see hundreds of homes being built adjacent to the school," Arvon said.


It's a microcosm of the bigger picture in the county - a picture that includes thousands of new residents and schools that are over capacity just a few years after opening.

Still, given generous funding from the state School Building Authority and the willingness of county residents to open their wallets for bonds, Arvon thinks the county is on top of the growth.

It's also on the top of the charts.

From 1990 to 2003, Berkeley County schools had 3,777 new students walk through the doors - the most in the state.

The next closest in terms of growth was Jefferson County, with 1,078 new students. Putnam County, in third, saw enrollment increase by 680 students.

Some counties saw a population decrease.

Few school systems in the nation likely are forced to build a new school every year, and Arvon said he doesn't see an end in sight.

"I think we're just getting a taste of it right now," he said. "I think the biggest growth is yet ahead of us."

In 1998, a committee made up of 55 community members met and worked out a 10-year plan to handle expected growth. Berkeley County Schools is in Phase II, with one phase remaining.

Hindsight, as they say however, is 20/20.

Musselman High School, which opened in 1998, already needs to be expanded. The school opened with around 850 students.

This year's enrollment will be 1,300.

To try to handle the growth, eight new classrooms are being built, part of many ongoing construction and renovation projects.

Across the county, 167 classrooms are being built. Even that, Arvon said, will not be enough to eliminate portable trailers.

"That's a wonderful goal," Arvon said of getting rid of trailers. "Is it reality? As long as we're building and growing, trailers will be a part of this school system."

"We still purchased a dozen trailers this summer," which will be added to 50 trailers already in use, Arvon said.

New carpet to roofs

Around a dozen renovation or construction projects are under way now, including site work at the new school that will open next year - an intermediate school in Gerrardstown, W.Va.

On Thursday, bids went out to build nine new classrooms and renovate the gym at Martinsburg High School. Additional space also will be added for dance and fine arts instruction, Arvon said. That work is expected to begin in September.

At Martinsburg South Middle School, bids have been awarded to add new classrooms, a band room and science laboratories. A new heating and air conditioning system also will be installed as part of the first phase of work. The second phase, for which funding still is needed, calls for building a new cafeteria and administrative offices.

Over the past year at Hedgesville Elementary School, eight classrooms have been built, along with a multipurpose room and a bus loading and parking area.

At Hedgesville High School, the size of the kitchen was doubled and a new gym and classrooms were built. Four classrooms remain to be added.

At Back Creek Valley Elementary School, workers are setting up a new entrance, which includes a new principal's office and a pair of restrooms.

The cafeteria and kitchen will be expanded at Mill Creek Intermediate School.

At Bunker Hill Elementary School, bids will go out this fall for a complete renovation, including 10 to 12 new classrooms. The school's capacity will double from its present 250 to 500 students.

At Musselman Middle School, which opened in 1999, a 2,800-square-foot band room should be ready by the time school opens.

Lastly, the circa-1840s Board of Education office in which Arvon works will undergo slight renovations, and a handicapped-accessible elevator will be installed.

"You have to build schools before you fix up board offices," Arvon said. "We have our priorities straight over here."

Other hurdles remain

Even with the school construction situation under control, other matters remain to be addressed.

Dealing with a transient population and recruiting and retaining teachers and administrators are two of the biggest challenges, Arvon said.

More than 130 new teachers will be hired this year, and six administrators were lost to higher salaries in surrounding counties in Virginia and Maryland.

"We put a lot of time and training into our folks to leave the school system," Arvon said. "The answer is, I believe, regional pay."

Teachers in Berkeley County are paid the same as teachers in other parts of the state where the cost of living is lower. School employees here can earn a significantly higher salary simply by driving across state lines.

Arvon also cites as a hassle a shortcoming in the state's school funding formula. Because funding is based on the previous year's enrollment, school systems that lost students do not lose a dime, but growth counties are not paid for new students who are sitting in classrooms.

Last year, Berkeley County only was funded for 78 percent of its new students, Arvon said.

That, though, is another story for another time. It's late and Arvon has spent much of the week in Charleston, W.Va., for a meeting.

As rain starts to fall on an overcast Friday, he just might have a chance to eat dinner with his family.

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