Can ‘unique’ solution” lead to regional boards of ed?

A high school English teacher years ago warned me to be careful when using the word “unique” to describe an event or even an idea. And my most memorable example of extremely poor usage of this word was a newspaper colleague’s years ago describing something as “very unique and quite different.”

But Executive Director Mark Manchin of the state School Building Authority was justified in his usage of the word “unique” to describe a proposed inter-county elementary school planned by the school boards of Lewis and Gilmer counties. At last week’s SBA meeting, Lewis County School Superintendent Joe Mace and Gilmer County School Superintendent Ron Blankenship presented a plan to merge two elementary schools they described as “decrepit” into a new consolidated inter-county school that would straddle the border between the two central West Virginia counties.

There are seven potential sites for the school intended to replace Troy Elementary School in Gilmer County and Alum Bridge Elementary School in Lewis County. The initial cost estimate for the new inter-county school is $11.1 million.

It is one of 23 proposed construction projects submitted to SBA for the next bond issue for new school construction that would require a total expenditure of about $170 million if all 23 were to be authorized. However, the proposed bond sale in May will only provide about $40 million for this latest round of statewide public school construction.

Lewis County’s population is more than twice that of Gilmer County and since most of the 20-acre site that is the preferred location for the new school would be in Lewis County, that county would be the financial agent for the project. But the two counties would split the cost of purchasing the property for the new school.

According to a staff member of the state Board of Education this is the only inter-county plan currently under consideration. There was one similar agreement previously between Logan and Lincoln counties.

The economics of this idea are compelling. The two counties estimate this proposal would result in an annual savings of more than $500,000 and another $500,000 in current expenses that could be avoided. That’s probably why Manchin said last week that he “fully anticipates” the SBA will award some of the $40 million bond sale planned for May to this inter-county project.

The SBA will make final decisions on which of the many deserving school construction projects will be funded at an April 23 meeting. One of the other projects is a $14 million proposal for a different elementary school to be constructed in Gilmer County.

Some people hope this is the first step toward “regional school management” and elimination of the 55 separate county boards of education, replacing them with so-called “regional school management areas.” It’s unlikely this single inter-county elementary school project can do that. But the opportunity to be more user-friendly to youngsters and their parents along the border of these two counties is a worthwhile move.

Meanwhile, so much for the high profile attempt to woo a $2 billion cracker plant to West Virginia by providing a property tax break of as much as $25 million to $30 million a year for the next 25 years. The plant will be built in neighboring Pennsylvania, just a few tantalizing miles from this state’s northern panhandle border.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had the signed bill in his hand when he flew to Texas to make his pitch to Shell Oil Co., in late January but the company decided to locate the new facility in another state. There is still hope for a small cracker plant somewhere in the Kanawha Valley but it will not reach the $2 billion minimum cost required to take advantage of this lavish tax incentive.

The consolation prize may be a $300 million ethane catalytic “cracker” plant that would provide new jobs for as many as 200 people at the Institute Industrial Park in western Kanawha County by 2015.

An announcement on this project, originally planned for last week, apparently has been postponed for a few weeks, according to state Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette. But he insists that he is ”very optimistic” about the smaller facility planned by Aither Chemicals. The more certain aspect is that state officials apparently can expect this company to request a similar tax break from West Virginia as a condition to make this happen.

Finally, good grades are always appreciated, whether it’s your child or even state government. And in the case of West Virginia, its ranking for providing online information about how the state’s tax revenues are spent has gone from the basement to the penthouse, according to a study released by a national public interest group’s ranking of the 50 states.

The report, entitled “Follow the Money, 2012: How the 50 States Rate in Providing On-Line Access to Government Spending Data,” indicates West Virginia has jumped from a dismal failing score of 28 to a score of 91 in one year, which ranks it as sixth in the country. The state’s improvement can be traced to its decision to copy the example of Texas, which ranked first both in the 2011 and 2012 reports, and set up the TransparencyWV.org website.

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