It’s hard not to talk about the proposed school levy when having a conservation with Pocahontas County Schools Superintendent Terrence Beam. No matter the topic, the levy is sure to come up.
At this point, all decisions made concerning the education system in the county relies heavily on the levy.
Beam said he has been approached by many concerned citizens who want to know what will happen if the levy does or does not pass. The simple answer is, “I don’t know,” because there are so many elements that go into what comes next.
“I’ve been asked many, many times ‘what are you going to do if the levy fails,’ and I say, ‘I have no idea,’” Beam said. “My argument has always been, if we can’t pass a levy which will guarantee somewhere between eleven point five and twelve million dollars given to us for free, how are we going to pass a levy with no guaranteed money? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Beam has tried to be as transparent as possible and provide information to the public concerning the levy because he knows how important the levy is to the county. While it may seem like a bombardment, he doesn’t want people to think it is a scare tactic for votes.
“I’m really hoping that people will really support this for so many different reasons, but I don’t want to sit here and say, ‘well this is going to happen if the levy fails,’ because then people will say, ‘you’re trying to scare us. You’re trying to threaten us.’ I don’t want it to appear that way. It’s just that there are going to be changes made. Changes have to be made.”
In planning for the levy, Beam said he and the board of education, board office employees and other involved individuals, have tried to create a plan with the least amount of changes.
Those changes include moving Marlinton Elementary School out of the floodplain and make it the Marlinton Middle School location Pre-K through sixth grade school; making Hillsboro Elementary School Pre-K through sixth grade; Green Bank Elementary-Middle School a Pre-K through sixth grade; and Pocahontas County High School seventh through 12th grade.
While the plan is unpopular with some parents, Beam reiterates that the West Virginia Department of Education is a proponent of consolidation so as to have fewer school buildings to maintain.
“Anytime you have fewer buildings, you have less maintenance, less upkeep,” Beam said. “If you have fewer buildings, you’ll have fewer personnel. Maybe not necessarily fewer teachers because teachers transfer, but if you have fewer facilities to take care of then you have fewer custodians, cooks, secretaries because you’re putting more people in a building.
“When school systems decide to close buildings, they are lying to you if they say it’s not for financial reasons,” he continued. “It may not be the only reason, but it is one of the reasons because the county just simply can’t keep up with all the buildings anymore. That’s why we’re seeing a growing number of school systems go to seven through twelve and five through twelve, which I think is extreme.”
Other counties in West Virginia feeling the strain have consolidated schools, creating five through 12 and even Pre-K through 12 schools to tighten the fiscal belt. In Beam’s opinion, the best option for Pocahontas County is seven through 12.
“I would never support a five through twelve school,” he said. “Seven through twelve is becoming more and more commonplace because they’re saying ‘let’s have an elementary school and let’s have a high school and cut out the middle schools.’ A K through twelve school is a little different than a five through twelve school. You’re taking the kids out of the fourth grade and that element, and your moving them into another building and with a lot of older kids, whereas if they start off as kindergarten kids in a K-twelve building, then they are more used to the environment.”
While Beam is not completely against having a K through 12 school, he realized through his research that it would not be feasible for Pocahontas County.
“In some ways, I think it’s kind of Americana to have that idea out there – K through twelve – but is it practical in a county our size? I don’t know,” he said. “If you had a really small geographical county, maybe, but if you had a K through twelve school, you would have kids all the way from Droop Mountain coming all the way up to [MMS]. It’s just so vast.
“We’ve been criticized for the seven through twelve idea but sometimes, you have to make choices that you know aren’t going to be real popular, but you’ve got to find a way to survive,” he continued. “It’s not just about the money. It’s about cutting down the number of buildings and that’s the only way we could do that.”
As he keeps himself informed on what is going on in other counties which struggle with financial issues, Beam admits Pocahontas County is in better shape than some, but it is still in bad shape overall.
In the Primary Election in May, the proposed school levy in Randolph County was voted down, leading the board of education to decide to close two schools. In Boone County, the board of education laid off 80 of its personnel to save money.
“Boone County cut eighty positions, and they still went to the state wanting two million dollars because they can’t pay their bills,” Beam said. “They cut eighty positions, and they’re still two million dollars short of making budget. The total number of positions in this county is somewhere around one hundred-eighty. They’ve got principals sharing schools. We have Shangri-la in some ways. We really do as far as what we have.”
What we have in Pocahontas County is some classrooms with fewer than 10 students and Beam said while that is nice for the students and teachers alike, it is something that cannot continue.
“I’ll shout from the mountaintops, I’m not interested in cutting people out of their jobs, but I think – and I’ve said this for a few years now – we have to be very cautious that when we do get an opening – when someone retires, somebody takes another job in another state – we don’t just automatically jump in and say, ‘let’s fill that job back up,’” Beam said. “I think that you’re painting yourself in a corner because somewhere down the road, you’re going to have to walk up to some people and say, ‘we’re going to have to cut your job.’”
For an example, Beam said if a third grade teacher at Hillsboro Elementary School left the school for a job in another county or state, instead of automatically filling the third grade position, he would look at other options, like combining the second and third grade classes into one room and using that position at another school.
“Maybe it’s another CTE teacher,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t want to speculate on what it might be. My point is, that needs to happen. We need to be more careful about how we fill positions. People get real protective of those and say, ‘now you’re taking away one of our teachers.’ We are trying to survive. We’ve done everything in this office that we can do to cut back on staff. We can’t cut any further. We just can’t, so we just have to be smarter.”
One of the biggest issues Beam and the board of education has to face when planning a budget is trying to comply with all the policies set forth by the state department of education and state legislature.
Many of the policies are helpful and geared toward giving children the best education possible, but some make it difficult to provide an education in a climate and population like Pocahontas County’s.
Beam said he and other school superintendents have shared their concerns with State Superintendent Dr. Michael Martirano in hopes for change.
“The Superintendent’s Association does a really good job of going to the legislature, going to the state department [of education], going to the state superintendent of schools as a group and saying ‘this is something we feel like we need to do,’” Beam said. “The preschool law that was going to require five days of preschool every week would have hurt a lot of counties. We talked to them about the calendar bill and letting us use some creative ways to make up the work instead of running buses extra days.”
Along with fighting to make education in Pocahontas County better for all involved, Beam said he is focused on changing the public perception of the board office and himself.
“We’ve always been accused of being ‘that board office,’ as being underhanded and a bunch of low lives,” he said. “We’re trying to change that and we’re not trying to buy our employees’ support, but we are trying to show them that we are on their side, and we’re trying to fix an incorrect act or fix a mistake if we can.”
Beam said the board has fixed several mistakes where individuals were shorted pay.
The short may not have amounted to a lot, but it was important to fix the error because a wrong needed to be righted.
“It would be easier to turn your head and say, ‘well that wasn’t on my watch,’ but I promised everybody when I took this job that if we found a problem, we were going to fix it and that’s what we’re doing. The board’s been very understanding of that. It hasn’t been an exorbitant amount of money, but it’s been a few dollars here and there and that makes a difference to people. It also lets them know that we’re trying to be fair with them.”
Beam said he is open to discussions on any topic with individuals who are seeking answers. Just remember, the conversation may not be geared toward the levy, but at some point, Beam will accidentally trip over the word and turn the conversation.
“One of the questions on the levy,” he said, instead of “survey.” “I can’t get that word out of my head.”