April in West Virginia smells like wild leeks: pungent and oniony. In the woods, their slim green leaves look like lilies of the valley, but pull the white bulb from the ground or tear off a piece of leaf and their aroma gives them away. Appalachian people have savored that smell for generations, gathering and eating the plants as a spring tonic. And, for almost as long, they have held community feasts to celebrate both the wild leeks —known locally as ramps—and the coming of spring.
The hills rise steeply all around Hacker Valley, home to one of the finest ramp dinners in West Virginia, held in the gym of the handsome new Hacker Valley elementary school. Laid out on long tables under the basketball nets are baskets of dinner rolls, traditional fried potatoes, and, of course ramps, sizzled in butter and served by the heaping spoonful. Dinner is served family-style, and neighbors talk to neighbors. Most of the village’s five hundred residents don’t have a lot of money—the average household income was under $24,000 as of the 2010 census—but many are happy to come out and support the school.
Hacker Valley nearly didn’t have this school. Twelve years ago, the school was a makeshift conglomerate of ten trailers that the state was pushing hard to close, but the citizens were determined to keep their children, and they won their case through a combination of intelligence, perseverance, and luck. In 2009, Governor Joe Manchin cut a red ribbon and welcomed the children into their new building. Now the school is a focal point for the town: a place to vote, a room for public meetings, and a hall big enough for the ramp dinner.
“If This Is Democracy, Then I Missed the Bus”
The new Hacker Valley school is the product of a long process that started out with high hopes for rural communities. In the 1970s, a group of parents from rural Lincoln County filed suit against the state, arguing that the existing system was unfair to children from poor rural communities; their schools were impoverished and facilities in terrible shape. In the early 1980s, a West Virginia court agreed, declaring the state’s school financing system unconstitutional and ordering that a new system be put in place. When the legislature created the School Building Authority (SBA) to distribute funds for construction and maintenance, many West Virginians welcomed the news. The SBA outlined a statewide planning process that seemed like an inclusive and democratic approach: a committee from each county would develop a comprehensive plan for school facilities.
In Hacker Valley, school board members and parents were delighted. It was high time to invest in the school; volunteers had fixed a leaky roof and drilled a new well, but the trailers were in bad shape, and on frosty mornings students scraped ice from the inside of the single-pane windows. The town was proud of its students—they had the highest test scores and lowest dropout rates in the county—but they needed a new building. The governor’s process seemed like it would be a fair and democratic way to fund it.
But Hacker Valley residents knew that something was wrong the minute they walked into the facilities planning meeting for their own Webster County. The chairs weren’t arranged for a committee meeting around a table or open space; instead, they were all lined up facing the head of the room, as if for a public lecture, with the state-named consultants sitting up front. As they looked around, they realized that the committee composition didn’t reflect the people of the county: of the twenty-nine members, more than half were employees of the board of education and only nine were parents. There were no students at all.
The superintendent introduced the two consultants who had been named by the SBA to oversee the process: Roy Blizzard and J. Dan Snead, who had come up from near Charleston, the state capital, and were architects who designed schools. Parents reflected afterward that the consultants immediately steered the discussion toward support for a new consolidated middle school. The situation was not lost on the Webster County residents. “It seemed like a conflict of interest for an architect who builds middle schools to be giving opinions on whether or not we need a new middle school,” said one of the parents.
Parents from Hacker Valley and other towns on the northern end of the county were especially worried about long bus rides. Their high school students already rode an hour and a half one way to a consolidated high school; they did not want their younger children to be stuck on the bus too. As one committee member said, “West Virginia is number one in the nation in the cost per student for transportation. That tells me we are spending too much money out of the schools and learning. In this day of modern technology, there is no reason why children should have these long bus rides. The money spent on busing should be spent on buildings and learning.”
In a series of meetings, these same concerns came up over and over. No one from the community spoke out in favor of closing existing schools and building a consolidated one.
But the School Building Authority had already identified minimum enrollment numbers that threatened to make community concerns obsolete. In order to be eligible for state funding, an elementary school would have to have at least three hundred students, a number that was supposed to create an economy of scale but was wildly unrealistic for the small towns where 70% of West Virginia’s children live. That size requirement meant consolidation and thus busing, since few Appalachian communities had that many children.
Parents felt that the consultants pushed consolidation. The architect Roy Blizzard, who ran the meetings, treated the SBA’s required minimum school size as sacrosanct. His plan was to send preschoolers through fifth graders on a bus ride over two mountains to Webster Springs—a forty-five-minute ride from their existing schools. When parents and citizens looked for alternative options, they felt dismissed. As one mother on the committee described it, “Any idea we came up with Dr. Blizzard would just shoot down and say, ‘That’s not input, I want input.’ We would give some other options. ‘That’s not input, I want input.’ The only thing he would consider input would be something that is in accordance with SBA guidelines on economies of scale. Anything else he would not consider to be input.”
The mother described how the parents persisted. “We were at every meeting. He finally did admit at one meeting that we could put in a request to get a hardship waiver because of our mountainous terrain. He said the SBA probably wouldn’t approve it, but we could put it in.”
Ultimately, the committee took an informal vote against the middle school, but it didn’t matter: Blizzard explained that he would make the final decisions. Committee members realized that they had been part of a charade. The public process looked like democracy, but rather than a collective inquiry into options, outside forces had pushed them toward a preordained conclusion.
Blizzard’s bluntness may have been exceptional, but similar processes were going on all over the state. The facilities planning committees, named by superintendents, were dominated by school officials; parent appointees were few and far between. Citizens who supported local schools were frozen out of the process. Committee members were told not to share information with the public. Consultants handed out stacks of charts and graphs on demographics and funding formulas but did not mention the extensive research on school size and student performance. Of the seven criteria identified by the legislature for determining school size, only one had become the benchmark: economies of scale. The six others—student health and safety, reasonable travel time, multi-county and regional planning, curriculum improvement, innovative programs, and adequate space for projected enrollments—simply faded into the background.
The process left a deep imprint of cynicism and disgust, as evidenced in the voices and actions of committee members. “The consultants had a plan and the community was just window dressing,” said one. Another described how “the committee, the board, parents and the county had been only spectators, powerless to act on our own behalf.” In Preston County, fully two-thirds of the committee members simply stopped participating. “We were told what the State Board of Education would approve,” a parent said. “It was like a used car lot with only one car.” As a former school board member described the frustrating process, “You just don’t question, because the SBA has these guidelines and this authority to tell you what you can and what you can’t do. So why bother us people in the community? . . . If that’s democracy, then I missed the bus.”
Rural School Consolidation: The Impact
Hundreds of communities lost their schools as part of the West Virginia consolidation movement. In the years since 1990, the state has closed one out of every five schools, with a total of over three hundred forced to shut their doors. The state’s transportation budget shot upward, with a volley of buses crisscrossing the counties.
An overreliance on centralized administrators led to committees making decisions on the basis of information that was imperfect, if not downright misleading. In Preston County, for example, the central county office had provided data that indicated a particular school was overflowing with too many students. But the parent and teacher committee members, who were in the school every day, knew that the true picture was quite different. As one said,
All of that information [about facilities] was taken from the county office. . . . If a classroom that had been designed for a full class of 25 was being used for five special ed students, it was considered being fully used. If it was used two days a week for music class, it was considered fully occupied.
Local people knew the real picture; it was they who could have suggested workable solutions. Perhaps existing part-time music and part-time art programs could be combined into one room, freeing up an additional classroom. Perhaps the small group of special education students could be moved to a private section of the school library. This kind of creative decision making can make the difference between keeping kids in the community and building a new school—a difference with vast community and financial impact.
With consolidation, many children rode up to two hours each way. In the town of Snowshoe, one county south of Hacker Valley, kindergartner Tommy Evans caught the bus at 6:30 a.m. and didn’t come home until 4:40 p.m.; his bus ride took a total of two hours and forty minutes a day. To pass the time, he and the other kids counted the bolts along the bus roof. “Everyone on the bus can tell you there are 46 bolts,” said an older rider.
Political momentum shifted only when the Charleston Gazette published a series on the effects of consolidation and highlighted its human face. The SBA dropped its requirement for “economies of scale” and began funding local schools again. The new Hacker Valley school is a result of that new policy.
But the devastating effects of the badly bungled process have lasted long after the committees were disbanded. Since the state closed small schools and eliminated local school boards, parents and community members have found it harder and harder to be a part of their new schools’ decision making. The effort to be involved is greater: the drives to meetings are longer and the faces at the other end are unfamiliar. And the rewards are less certain. Because the consolidated boards cover such an expanded territory, there are relatively fewer members with a direct investment in their children.
In addition, towns that have lost their schools have lost their major public building. As a former school board member observed, “To urban administrators, moving a school 10 or 15 miles down the road may seem a minor adjustment on the state map, but local schools are the only town hall, gym, polling place, theater, dance hall and recreation center.” The loss of these functions weakens the community relationships that make local democracy so effective. “When a school is in the community, then there’s a community of people there,” observed parent Linda Martin, who coordinated the statewide effort against consolidation. “Once the school is removed, then we’re just people who live here and there along the road.”
West Virginia is not an isolated case. While that state’s experience with consolidation has since created a movement back toward local schools, many other states continue to promote consolidation as enrollments shrink and budgets tighten.
Lessons from the Schools
The story of West Virginia is not unique, nor is rural school consolidation the only example of misplaced priorities. In the name of such goals as “efficiency,” “uniformity,” and “professionalization,” we have seen a nationwide trend of volunteer school boards replaced by central district offices, neighborhood planning decisions made by regional bodies, and town decisions overridden by state or federal mandates.
The case of West Virginia highlights two of the biggest problems with the current balance of power between local democracy and state and national forces. First, the process simply doesn’t work very well. Over and over, our current centralized decision-making process has shown itself to be inept at creating solutions that work to solve local problems. State administrators develop “best practices” and theoretical frameworks that may be eminently useful in some situations but don’t apply to others, such as when policies that work well in urban areas are applied, one-size-fits-all, to rural areas.
Second, this kind of process undercuts the institutions that foster real local decision making. School consolidation discussions generally revolve around questions of administrative efficiency and academic offerings, but especially in rural areas, the loss of local schools also has a deep impact on local democracy—a consequence that is almost never mentioned. In Vermont, for example, pro-consolidation legislation will fund merger studies if they consider four criteria: real dollar efficiencies, operational efficiencies, curriculum opportunities, and student performance. And even though sociologist after sociologist has pointed out the relationship between schools, community, and democracy, somehow that connection has not registered with public policy makers: neither community nor democratic engagement is even on the list of criteria. In most policy discussions, there are—as there should be—advocates for frugality, advocates for children, and advocates for teachers. But rarely does anyone ask, “What’s best for our democracy?”
This article is excerpted from Slow Democracy: Rediscovering community, bringing decision making back home (Chelsea Green, 2012) and is republished here with permission of the publisher. To learn more about the book, visit http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/slow_democracy:paperback