Two Preston schools remain open as board considers levy

KINGWOOD — The Preston County Board of Education tabled action on the closing of two schools Tuesday night and will be looking at running another school levy.

The vote, taken before a large audience at the Preston High theater, was 4-1, with Board Member Jeff Zigray voting against it. Board Member Pam Feathers made the motion, and Bob Ridenour seconded it.

Board attorney Rebecca Tinder said that “to clarify, it’s technically not a table. The motion is to run a levy and revisit whether or not to close the two schools.”

After the initial motion passed, all five voted, 5-0, to direct the superintendent to seek a waiver from the State Board of Education on meeting the Dec. 31 state deadline for completing actions on school closures prior to the year in which the schools would close.

If a waiver is granted, Tinder said, it’s unknown for how long it would be. “Presumably long enough to do whatever it is that this board is requesting the extension for. And if that were to run the levy, to have the levy prepared, drafted, published, etc., and then put onto a special levy election,” she said.

Board Member Robert “Mac” McCrum held his head in his hands and thought before voting on the motion to table. Feathers, who had made the motion, urged, “If you’re not

100 percent sure, Mr. McCrum, you cannot vote against it. You have to be 100 percent sure.”

“Come on, Mac, give these kids another chance,” someone in the audience said.

Board President Jack Keim hushed the crowd as it began speaking out. There was applause after each “yes” vote.

Ridenour said he “would just like to urge my fellow board members to reconsider their opinions about this levy’s possibility of failure. I understand that different members have talked to people in the community, but you haven’t talked to every person in every community.”

They can turn it over to the voters of Preston County, “and basically, if they want to do this, if the levy passes, the schools stay open,” Ridenour said. “This is not a threat, this is just a statement of fact. If it does not pass, the schools close.”

The waiver is also necessary because, Superintendent Steve Wotring said, personnel matters for the 2019-’20 school year start in January. “What I would have to do in personnel season is assume the closure and treat every personnel as if we were closing, and then if the board did not close, I would have to undo what was done.”

All five board members, who remained silent throughout six weeks of public meetings and hearings, spoke out Tuesday on their thoughts.

During those remarks, several addressed calls from the public to run another levy election for school funding. McCrum, who said he is worried

the county might be headed down the road to state takeover again, said he believes running another levy would be a waste of money.

Zigray, noting, “We have cut, we have cut and we have cut,” said, “the levies are not passing.”

Keim said Preston County has an aging population on a fixed income, and they don’t want more taxes. In addition, he said, he’s talked with people who said they will not support a levy aimed at keeping the two schools open.

Wotring said he was asked by the board after the last levy failure in May to look at cost savings. That included the two school closures, he said. In addition to no levy, the county continues to lose enrollment, which translates to lost state funding.

On Tuesday, he said Fellowsville Elementary has an enrollment of 71 students in grades K through sixth, a 14 percent decline over the last five years. Rowlesburg has 82 students in grades K through eighth, an 11 percent decline over five years, Wotring said.

Fellowsville is at 38 percent capacity, Rowlesburg at 33 percent, he said.

The superintendent also provided figures that he said showed scores on math and language testing at the two small schools were not all as good as proponents claimed. There are “pockets of excellence” in schools county wide, Wotring said.

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