There have been a lot of changes in Pocahontas County Schools in the past five years. New board members, new teachers, new programs and plenty of upgrades.
As he reflects on those years, Superintendent Terrence Beam said he is proud to be part of a system that has done so much to improve education in the county, as well as ensuring the safety of the students.
Without funding, there are no changes, and Beam said the changes really began when the system made some tough decisions to maintain a healthy budget. That decision led to the ability to regain programs and add new staff.
“One of the first things we did about five years ago – we had a real budget crunch,” he said. “We had to make some very tough decisions, sacrifice, lower some salaries, eliminate some programs – those kinds of things. For the last two or three years, we’ve been working on trying to build our budget back to where – we’re never going to be rich – but at least we’ll be halfway comfortable with our budget and not be in fear that if we have something major come up, we can’t deal with it.”
When an employee retired or resigned from a position, Beam said the board looked at the best avenue for using that salary – whether to keep the same position or switch it to another.
With a healthier budget, the board was able to be creative with adding new positions.
As Beam explained, the West Virginia Department of Education is encouraging an increase in counseling and nursing staff, stating that the mental and physical health of students is just as important as their education.
“In the last year, we’ve added three LPNs,” he said. “We’ve added a social worker that will start July 1. With our LPNs, we’ll now have one at the high school, at Green Bank [Elementary-Middle School] and Marlinton Elementary [School] to serve our kids – along with our school nurse. Our social worker will be working out of Hillsboro [Elementary] School and will serve as their counselor, but will also serve the county three days a week as our social worker with all our families.”
Funding for LPN and social worker positions will come from state grants which will help guarantee the positions will remain intact regardless of the board’s budget.
“The state has tried to emphasize the social and emotional and physical condition of our children and so that pot of money to fund our LPNs is going to be there,” Beam said. “Nobody can promise what the legislature will do – especially with this pandemic – but I think we’re in really good condition to be able to keep these positions going to provide the services our kids need.”
The graduation coach position at Pocahontas County High School has also been renewed, although slightly altered. Beginning next year, Emily McLaughlin will be the part-time graduation coach and she will work with students to ensure they graduate. She will also help to prepare them for what they want to do after high school.
“We really want to get our kids closer to being prepared when they graduate – not necessarily just for college – but for the next step of their lives, whatever it is,” Beam said. “They need to have somebody there with them every single day that can work with them. I don’t care if they’re ninth graders or twelfth graders, we want to work with those kids and keep them on track toward either workforce, joining the service or going to college, wherever it happens to be.”
Former graduation coach Jerry Dale will continue offering college credit courses at the high school.
When it comes to hiring personnel, Beam said it is a group effort and most of the time, he is not involved in the selection process.
“Unless it’s a central office job or an itinerant job that serves all the schools, I don’t do the hiring,” he said. “The faculty senate and the principals make the recommendations on classroom teaching positions. If it’s a certified employee and the faculty senate and the principal both agree this is who they want in their school, then I have to recommend it and the school board has to approve it. If the principal votes for one and the faculty senate votes for one, I have to break the tie. I’ve not had any of those. They’re always in agreement about who they want to hire.”
On top of having a full and qualified staff, the school system has also made plenty of upgrades in the past five years.
After education, one of the most important programs in a school system is the nutrition program. Beam said he is proud of the work former director of food services Lisa Dennison did to ensure that every student in Pocahontas County receives free breakfast and lunch every day at school.
“We talked about it for two or three different board meetings and she had people from the state [education] department come in and explain it,” Beam said. “Lisa said, ‘Let’s start with a couple of schools’ and I think Mr. [Emery] Grimes was president of the board at the time and he kind of led the discussion and said, ‘We need to offer this to all of our kids.’
“We ran the numbers and we decided to try it for a year,” Beam continued. “Well, it worked out very well. We didn’t get rich off of it. We didn’t intend to get rich off of it. All we wanted to do was break even to what we would have done in the past. This way it would be something for our kids and help our citizens not have to pay those lunch bills. Lisa Dennison is the one who pushed this, and that was a great decision on her part.”
It’s hard to talk upgrades without mentioning all the upgrades done to the facilities. The board has been transparent about the poor shape of the school buildings, most of which are more than 40 years old.
Each year, the board decides whether or not to apply for funding from the West Virginia School Building Authority for either a Major Improvement Project – MIP, which cannot exceed $1 million, or a Needs Project which does not have a cap on the amount granted, but does require a county match.
In the past five years, the board of education has received more than $2 million for several MIP projects to make upgrades to the school facilities including a new cafeteria at Hillsboro Elementary School, a sewer system at Pocahontas County High School and a new roof at Green Bank Elementary-Middle School.
“We’ve been very fortunate to be able to do that with very little buy-in,” Beam said. “We’re still working on Green Bank’s roofing project and we actually had a pre-bid on it this week or last week. Another thing we did just recently, we put a new roof on the senior citizens building in Hillsboro. It looks really good. That’s part of our school property. This is not a hand out in any way. This is just us trying to support them.”
Another large improvement was the relocation of the board office from the building beside MES to the former Moose Lodge in Buckeye.
“I know it’s been controversial for some people – for a really small minority of people who actually voiced displeasure about us moving our board office,” Beam said. “There have been less and less complaints as time has gone by and as people come visit this facility. They say, ‘You should have done this before.’”
As for the present and future, Beam said it’s been an interesting year with lots of curve balls, but he feels the school system handled it pretty well.
“It’s been interesting, I’ll give you that,” he said. “We’re just starting to look toward next year and what this might look like in the middle of August.
“How we start school, if we’re allowed to start school, and under what conditions. That’s going to involve some staff develop- ment for our teachers, so they know exactly what they need to do.
“It’s the world we’re living in right now.”
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org