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BOE candidates meet with The Dominion Post editorial board

KINGWOOD — One issue the next Preston County Board of Education will likely have to tackle is the fate of Rowlesburg and Fellowsville schools.

Candidates running for positions on the board were asked for their thoughts on that matter during a discussion with The Dominion Post’s editorial board Monday. The interview covered topics both local and national that can, have, or will affect the quality of education in the county.

Some candidates who were unavailable will have the chance to speak with the board next week. Each candidate was asked the same seven questions and given two minutes to respond to each. 

The first session was attended by current BOE President Jack Keim, who is up for reelection; Lucas Tatham, owner of Modern Homestead in Reedsville; and Steven Wise, who moved to Preston County two years ago after working in higher education for 40 years.

Fellowsville and Rowlesburg schools have to be approached together, Keim said.

“I’ve said this from the beginning, I will not vote to close either one of those schools, unless there is a plan in place ready to take effect of what we’re going to do with those facilities,” he said. 

While selling the schools, worth an estimated $15 million-$16 million, is an option, Keim doesn’t believe they would get anywhere near that value by selling them. The facilities need to be used to improve Preston County, he said.

Keim said he does have a plan but that explaining it would take longer than the allotted time. 

Tatham agreed there needs to be a plan and he understands finances, but closing schools kills communities. He pointed to the vacant schools in many of Preston County’s towns. 

“Preston County has, I think, suffered a lot from consolidations,” he said. “There needs to be a creative plan, mostly because politically, Preston County is very diverse with a lot of different communities that are geographically apart from each other. If we close schools, we close communities, and they won’t vote for excess levies.”

Tatham suggested using the buildings for adult education or other programs. Maybe make one of them focus on science and math and make it a privilege to attend once or twice a week.

Wise said he thinks there are alternatives other than just looking at how much it costs to educate a student at a given school.

“The beginning of my approach to closing any school is what in the world the closure of that school would do to that community. And of course, we can look for alternative plans but the question is whether or not those alternative plans would continue to add as much value to the community,” he said.

Fellowsville school is a hub for the community and acts as a community center, Wise said. Closing the school would hurt the community in a way those in the county understand because of previous closures. 

With two years left on the excess levy, a solution can be found, Wise said.

In the afternoon session, the editorial board spoke with Debra Felton, a Preston County educator for 40 years; William Tribett, a 25-year Navy veteran with a Ph.D. in financial planning who moved to the county five years ago; and BOE member Jeff Zigray, who taught for 35 years in Preston and still substitutes in Morgantown. 

Felton graduated from Rowlesburg High School, taught at Rowlesburg School, and lives in the town now. Its closure is a foregone conclusion in her mind.

“It will break nobody’s heart worse than mine for Rowlesburg School to have to close,” Felton said. “But we’ve come to a point where it’s, I honestly believe at this point that the state will close it before the county will have to.”

She said she’s looked at current enrollment numbers for this year and next and has tried for two years to get homeschoolers or people in the area who take their kids to a different school to come to Rowlesburg, but the numbers simply aren’t there.

Fellowsville doesn’t have the low enrollment of Rowlesburg and could be watched for a few years, she said.

The first thing Tribett would do is look at the cost of keeping the schools open compared to shutting them down. For Fellowsville, if it’s closed students can go to South Preston, which is where they will go after graduation anyway. 

Rowlesburg’s enrollment numbers could be boosted by creating an alternative school for problem students on one level and only one school would be closed, Tribett suggested. Then, the board would have to decide what to do with Fellowsville School.

Ultimately, it will come down to the almighty dollar, he said.

Zigray has already voted to close both schools — and was the only board member to do so, he said.

“Financially at that time, we did not have a levy and we were in bad shape. So we cut in a lot of places that we should not have cut and one place was the janitors,” Zigray said. “To go back to the high school, ‘Why is it so filthy there?’ Well, we just don’t have enough janitors to clean.”

Another problem is split classes — one teacher having to juggle multiple grade levels in the same class while also managing the different abilities of students in each grade. Zigray said that’s a hard job for a teacher to pull off.

“You hate the close a school down, you know, they’re the heart of the community,” Zigray said. 

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