Crowd asks to keep Fellowsville open; call for special levy renewed by some

FELLOWSVILLE — Twenty-two people spoke in support of keeping Fellowsville Elementary open at a public hearing Monday on the possible closing of Fellowsville and Rowlesburg schools.

Only two people spoke at an earlier hearing Monday at South Preston School: Principal James Hoit, who said any students transferred there if Fellowsville or Rowlesburg closes would be welcome, and longtime community schools advocate Arvin Harsh, who also spoke at Fellowsville.

The Preston County Board of Education is considering closing the schools as a cost savings. The board will meet at 5 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Preston High theater to vote on the superintendent’s recommendation regarding the closings.

Harsh, a former board member from Aurora, said closing community schools isn’t new in Preston County. “It might be the right thing to do [financially], but it’s the wrong thing to do for parents and our communities,” Harsh said.

He asked about utility bills at South Preston, which Preston Superintendent Steve Wotring said during the Fellowsville hearing can reach $20,000 a month. Why not use natural gas, instead of going all electric, Harsh and others asked? Wotring said there isn’t sufficient pressure to bring the gas from Tunnelton to the school.

Stan Shaver, a former state legislator and retired educator, said there is no fiscal reason to close the schools, given that the board started the year with a $1.3 million rainy day fund. Wotring said the board is required to set aside 3 percent of its budget.

Shaver renewed the call to put a special levy, using paper ballots instead of voting machines, before voters again. Two failed recently, the last in May. Voters in the Fellowsville area weighed in on the nay side of the ballot.

He and other speakers asked that action on the closings be held until after the levy vote. Some asked that the levy include language saying the two schools must remain open.

“If a special levy is not passed [with these provisions], there will never be a levy passed in 50 years in Preston County,” Shaver warned.

Wotring said earlier it would cost $50,000-$60,000 to run a special election with the machines. It would cost $42,500 to do paper ballots, he said Monday.

Roberta Gribble and other parents asked why the board would want to, “close one of the best elementaries we have and send our children to one of the most under performing schools?”

She said that, “operating without a levy is holding us back,” and said she’s heard many people say they would vote for a levy that guaranteed Fellowsville and Rowlesburg would remain open.

Former board and House of Delegates member Larry Williams said people in the area didn’t know the levy failure meant the possibility their schools could close. They would vote for the levy to keep it open, Williams said. Alyssa Sines echoed that thought.

Tony Long and others noted that taxpayers will continue paying on the 2010 construction bond until 2025. In answer to a question by Adam Feathers, Wotring said legal counsel has told the board it can close the schools before the bond is paid off.

Several speakers presented board members with copies of research they did, showing the benefits of small schools.

Wotring said another reason for fiscal concern is the loss of 105 students this year. That means next year the state will provide $500,000 less in funding and fund four to five fewer teachers.

Donald Funk, president of the Fellowsville Athletic Association and a business owner, said the loss of the school would be “devastating” to students. In more than 10 years of coaching, he has seen more than 3,000 kids go through the Fellowsville gym, Funk said.

He said it appears the board and superintendent aren’t willing to make the necessary sacrifices to keep the school open and suggested looking for outside funding. Wotring listed several grant-funded programs and said the staff is always looking for more.

Ed Knotts noted he comes from a family that works in education and asked the board to consider the effects of lost jobs on the county. Also, Knotts said, Fellowsville is close to Corridor H, which he said will soon be completed, and young families are more likely to settle there, if there is a school.

Retired educator Don Post said the board just keeps taking from southern Preston County. He said the Nov. 13 vote will be this board’s legacy but could be “the nail in the coffin” for the area.

He and some other speakers referred to the closing of several area high schools in the 1970s, including Fellowsville and Newburg.

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