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To close or not to close

By Staff | May 27, 2009

WILDCATS FOREVER — Supporters in a packed Paden City High School gymnasium rose to their feet a few times Thursday night to show their agreement with various statements in the campaign to keep PCHS open.

“When is West Virginia going to start investing in kids, flesh and blood, not bricks and mortar?”

That is the question Paden City High School Athletic Director Fred King rhetorically asked a packed gymnasium Thursday night at a meeting to discuss the fate of PCHS.

Rodney McWilliams started the meeting by explaining how the community got to the point that there are discussions of closing PCHS. “Hopefully we’ll get a better understanding,” said McWilliams.

He explained that every 10 years boards of education in West Virginia are required to formulate a Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan. It is used by the School Building Authority, which allocates funding for facilities improvements and construction. Cross sections of the communities served by the county’s schools are to be part of the CEFP committee. This is the third time Wetzel County has gone through this process with their current plan due by August 2010.

In March the Cornerstone Project, sponsored by the Paden City Foundation, was formed to help stand up for the local high school. “The news wasn’t very encouraging at that point,” stated McWilliams. He said the CEFP committee had reached a consensus buy-in to support a plan that would entail the closing of PCHS in the next 10 years, with PCHS students going to Magnolia High School. That plan was one of five considered by the committee.

THE COMMUNITY CORNERSTONE — From left, Paden City High School Athletic Director Fred King, Wildcat Booster President Matt Ferrebee, and PCHS Principal Warren Grace applaud some statements made by Rodney McWilliams of the Cornerstone Project, a group sponsored by the Paden City Foundation to try to save PCHS.

Given that outlook, the Cornerstone Project contacted the five board members to make sure they knew what the CEFP was doing. According to McWilliams, three of the board members were not aware of the situation, but two were as they were members of the committee.

If the plan is approved by the board and the state, then any part of the plan can be implemented at any time in the next 10 years.

During the first week of May the Cornerstone Project met with Superintendent Bill Jones and Treasurer Jeff Lancaster. They reported that the CEFP was essentially finished. The project then sent a delegation to the last CEFP meeting. McWilliams reported that a Paden City delegate to the CEFP committee was denied a roll call vote on the plan.

The next step, said McWilliams, is to work with the board members before it gets to the public opinion phase and then to the board for a vote.

According to McWilliams, there are two major reasons the employees of the board of education give for closing PCHS: the cost of running the school, approximately $1.463 million, and the school’s curriculum doesn’t allow for all of the things they should be offering.

McWilliams said the school’s operating cost is only five percent of the county’s budget. He further said it is perceived that the cost will not be saved, just spent elsewhere.

The Cornerstone Project did a survey of the families of all students at Paden City Elementary School and PCHS. Eighty percent of those surveys, 329, were returned. Of those replies to the four questions, 100 percent said they support Paden City schools, 95 percent thought public schools in Paden City were very important, 95 percent said they would not support a school levy if PCHS was closed, and 90 percent said they would send their child to a school in another county if PCHS was closed. When McWilliams gave those final two responses, the large crowd gave a rousing round of applause.

McWilliams said Paden City has historically been an area that strongly supports school levies. Without their support, he doubted one would pass. “It is very conceivable that a 60 percent approval rate would not be possible,” he ventured. The school levy provides approximately $2 million per year for the school system.

The other primary source of income for the board comes through the state funding formula, based on enrollment. The state contributes approximately $5,700 per student. That translates, according to McWilliams, into a possible loss of $600,000 to $800,000 per year if current PCHS students go out of the county.

As for the second reason, McWilliams said, “We’re wondering if they have confused wants with needs.” He said there are 19 classes that PCHS offers that MHS doesn’t, while MHS offers 21 classes that are not taught at PCHS. “From what we have found, there are no gains to be had,” he said.

Further, he said PCHS consistently ranks above county and state averages on the WestTest.

PCHS Teacher and 1984 Graduate Rick Bertozzi spoke to the education given at PCHS. “I can truly say that the education we give is good enough for my own kids,” he noted. “Here at Paden City every teacher knows (all) the kids.” The class sizes are small and the activity participation is high, approximately 75 percent. “We have practically every kid doing something,” said Bertozzi, who noted that keeps down other problems.

“I think we give them a good chance to start out running when they get to college,” he continued.

Bertozzi said they need to ask the board and CEFP members why they want to close PCHS. He incited applause when he said, “We shouldn’t have to give what we’ve worked for because someone else wants something.”

While Bertozzi did not indicate what he thought someone else wanted, King offered that MHS wants to remain a AA school. He said Magnolia is only seven students away from being Class A. “They need us. We don’t need them,” declared King, who was met with a standing ovation.

“We have better facilities than anybody in Wetzel County,” King stated his opinion. He also said he will guarantee that the kids from Paden City wouldn’t get to dress for sports at Magnolia. Kids in New Martinsville, he said, would most likely get the nod to play.

He also said it is a false idea that athletes must attend a bigger school to get recognized by a college. He said 40 to 50 PCHS graduates have played at the collegiate level.

Further, King said it would be a monumental mistake for Paden City students to transfer now. “Go down with the ship!” he incited, saying it is a great time to teach children a valuable lesson about loyalty and controversy.

Along the same lines, Matt Ferrebee, president of the Wildcat Boosters, stressed it is important to keep attending Paden City schools. He was met with a standing ovation when he said, “We need to bring our kids back to this town.”

He encouraged those who know people who live in Paden City but send their children to other schools to stress to them the importance of attending their local institutions.

“We as a boosters are not going to give up,” declared Ferrebee. Even if PCHS does close, they will continue to support Paden City kids with scholarships and other incentives. “We’ll make it worthwhile to stay in Paden City,” he said.

Looking at the bleachers full of PCHS supporters, Ferrebee said, “This is what we need to keep our school here.” He said it was the most people he had seen in the Wildcat gymnasium for a long time.

Tim Miller, a former board of education member, brought a different perspective to the meeting. “Whether you like it or not. . . it’s going to boil down to five board of education members,” he pointed out.

Supporters of PCHS were encouraged to contact those board members and make their feelings and reasons for keeping PCHS open known. However, Miller stressed it is very important to keep the lines of communication open and civil. They do not want to threaten or get any board members upset, otherwise they are likely to vote with emotions, not facts.

PCHS Principal Warren Grace gave the same advice. “Please try very hard to be as respectful and as polite as possible,” he requested of the crowd when speaking with board members.

He also encouraged supporters to attend a public hearing that will be scheduled by the board. It is expected it will be held some time in June in Paden City.

Finally, he encouraged everyone to attend the PCHS graduation June 6 at 3 p.m. and wear green in support of the school. He noted that every board members is expected to be in attendance and the visible support would be invaluable.

“In my judgement we are in a very serious situation,” said Grace.

Finally, McWilliams concluded the meeting by giving the CEFP an revised meaning-Continued Excellence For Paden City.

“If ever there was a time in this town that differences have to be set aside, it is now,” said McWilliams. “If we don’t stand together today, we’ll have nothing to stand for tomorrow.”