Buildings can often be taken for granted. When they are new, it seems they will be stable forever. When they get a few years or decades on them, they still look strong and sturdy, with no need for upgrades or repairs. But looks can be deceiving.
While there have been many upgrades to the schools in Pocahontas County, the board of education must look to the future and plan for the worst, while hoping for the best.
To ensure that all school systems are prepared for the years to come, the West Virginia Department of Education requires all boards of education to create a Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan – or CEFP. The large document is a 10-year plan for the facilities in the school system and covers upgrades, repairs or replacement of said facilities.
The CEFP begins with a review of all the facilities by an architectural firm hired by the board. Working on the Pocahontas County CEFP is Thrasher, led by Bill Radcliff and Matt Breakey.
“They’re looking at the size of the buildings, the condition of the buildings, the number of students we have and the projected enrollment of the number of students we’re going to have and determine whether it’s feasible to keep buildings like these operational, and what the cost is going to be,” superintendent Terrence Beam said.
Once the school building reviews are done, Thrasher will share the information with the CEFP committee, which will discuss and determine the goals for the next 10 years – whether that be to continue operation as is, build new schools or consolidate existing schools.
As the committee members work on the plan, they have to keep in mind how the plan will be funded.
“When the CEFP committee makes a decision on how many schools and what roads they’re going to go down, one of the things that you have to decide is how do we pay for this,” Beam said. “Do we ask the state to pay for all of it? Or if the county is going to take some of the cost responsibility, how do we go about doing that? That’s a hard call, but that’s why we have committees, and that’s why we have community members on these committees instead of board office people, making these decisions.”
When funding a project, the county has been fortunate the past several years.
The board recently received notification from the West Virginia School Building Authority that the MIP (Major Improvements Project) grant for Green Bank Elementary-Middle School was funded. This is the third MIP in a row that has been approved for the county.
“We’ve been real lucky the last three years to get two million dollars with no money up front on our own to help fix Green Bank and the high school,” Beam said.
The SBA provides funding to school systems in the form of MIP grants which are less than $1 million and can only be used on one school; Needs Projects, which are larger grants, can encompass several schools at once.
While Pocahontas County has had luck with MIP grants, Beam said there are no guarantees for future funding.
“I think the very fact that we have gotten money three years in a row, our luck is going to run out,” he said.
“There were twenty-two counties that applied for money and only seven were funded. We were the last on the list to get funded this year, and I think there’s going to be other counties that say, ‘you funded Pocahontas County three years in a row, it’s our turn now.’
“I think it’s going to be hard for us to get another MIP approved the next couple of times,” he continued. “We haven’t applied for a Needs Project for a couple years now because we need the CEFP to determine what our goals are. When you make those priority lists, that’s what you build your Needs Project from.”
The priority lists are created by the CEFP and are reviewed when boards apply to the SBA for funding. If Pocahontas County applies for funding to replace the high school, that project will have to be the top priority on that list, otherwise, the SBA will question why that project was selected over higher priority items.
“You don’t go down to number eight and do a Needs Project for number eight,” Beam said. “You have to do a Needs Project on number one. I think we have two major issues to deal with and that’s Marlinton Elementary School and Pocahontas County High School. I don’t know what order that comes in. Like I say, I don’t have a lot of input on that.”
While the priority list is important, Beam said it is not set in stone and amendments can be made. If an issue arises that could send a facility to the top of the list, the board is able to make that change.
However, if a Needs Project or MIP is submitted for one school and then something happens to another in the meantime, the submissions cannot be replaced or changed.
“There’s a deadline for the presentations,” Beam said. “You have to apply for the Needs Project by September 1 of each year, and they have the MIP as of April 1. After you submit, you can’t make any changes. After you get funded, no matter what happens, you can’t take the money to use it for something else.”
An example would be if the SBA funds a Needs Project for PCHS and in the meantime, MES is flooded, the money granted through the Needs Project cannot be used to fix MES. It has to be used on PCHS.
But, the SBA is prepared for emergencies and has funds set aside for schools that suffer a disaster or great loss.
“They do have emergency fund money at the SBA that can only be used if something catastrophic happens at your school and you’ve already applied for your funding. But you can’t have a school without fixing it,” Beam said. “If a roof blows off, you can do an emergency request, and they can move on that very, very promptly.”
While it will take a little more time for the CEFP to create a plan for the future of the school buildings, time is up for one building – the former board office.
Beam said the plan that was set in motion last year for a group to demolish the building for free is still in motion, and he hopes it will take place this fall.
“We’re just anxious to get that done as quickly as we can,” he said.
Once the building is done, Beam said the plan is to use the space to change the way the buses load and unload students at MES.
“I think we’re going to reroute our buses,” he said. “We have a lot of traffic on that street, and we have a lot of people breaking the law or trying to – so we’re thinking about making that area more accessible for our buses to deliver and pick up our kids.”