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G-ICYMI™: iTeam Investigation: West Virginia’s 55-county education system

The Free Press WV
The Free Press WV

West Virginia’s public-school education system is under the microscope and while there has been great debate over how to improve the student results there are very few concrete answers that most can agree on.

For a state with a population of only 1.8 million people, West Virginia has an impressive number of individual school districts.

Each of the state’s 55 counties runs its own school system. West Virginia is the only state in the country with its education system based solely on county lines. That means there are 55 county school superintendents and 55 county central office staffs with all of the costs associated with those positions.

“The politically correct thing for me to tell you is that I support a 55-county structure, from county units of government to boards of education and so on. But I can tell you in practical application with the population declining as we are is there a lot of duplication of services in the current structure? Absolutely, I don’t think anyone could argue that fact,” Sen. Paul Hardesty (D-Logan) said.


“We have a lot of things that moved us toward centralization. And centralization is efficient and it is efficient by covering geography. But it’s not efficient in innovation. It’s not efficient in counties really being able to meet the identified needs of their students as they would meet those,” West Virginia School Board Association Executive Director Howard O’Cull said.

This school year, West Virginia’s county superintendents are making more than $6.7 million, with the highest paid administrator in Berkeley County at $192,270, and the lowest in Roane at $85,000.

“At some point of time in this state there will not be 55 county boards of education, there will not be 55 county commissions, 55 assessors and other elected officials. Not trying to knock no one out of a job, but the population loss, the geographic of this, it just doesn’t work. Someday it will have to be changed, I don’t know when that day is. And I’d say there’s very few people sitting in this building that I sit today that wants to even touch or get near it. But I think it’s just a real grim reality that something’s going to have to be done,” Hardesty said.

West Virginia’s spending per student is among the highest in the nation. Last school year, on average, it was $11,485. But all of that money doesn’t go into the classroom. Right off the top, a couple thousand is taken away to help retire the enormous Public Employees Insurance Agency debt.

“Previous legislatures made promises they didn’t fund. And we’re going to be good fiscal stewards of the taxpayer dollars, position ourselves for success and give our students a world class education,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R) said.

Administrative costs also whittle away at what we spend on students. This year, 652 administrators are pulling in $56.1 million in salaries.

“The taxpayer of West Virginia has invested in education and shows the value of it such that we’re in the top quartile in the nation in terms of per student expenditures. So, how does that correlate to low teacher pay and low performance in our classrooms? It doesn’t. And that money is being dissipated throughout a 55-county board system and a top heavy public education department,” Carmichael said.

According to the state department of education, West Virginia’s 667 schools now have a total enrollment of 265,755 students. That’s down nearly 5000 students from the previous year. But the numbers vary wildly over the state’s 55 counties. Only one has more than 20-thousand students, that’s Kanawha. Only seven are over the 10,000-student mark.

“Our county school systems are too numerous. I think by any stretch of the imagination, 1.8 million people, 260,000 public school children, 55 county boards of education is maybe too top heavy. So, we want to look at methods or methodologies to provide incentives for counties to work across county borders. To erase those arbitrary county lines so that, again, the student is first,” Carmichael said.

The fact is most districts have very low enrollment. So low, that the entire student populations of 14 different West Virginia counties could fit inside the state’s largest high school. Each of those 14 counties all have fewer students than the 1,887 who attend Cabell Midland.

“There’s no other way to say this, we have got to think about different models. We have a low birth rate in this state. We have an extreme exodus of students, school-age students who are leaving the state. We have an opioid crisis. We have a lot of grandparents raising children. All these things converge to mean we’ve got to have a different school system. The only trouble we have here is we have people who don’t want to start looking at that vision. That vision is the vision we will have to have at some time in this state. It’s probably only ten years off,” O’Cull said.

While West Virginia is the only state in the country using county lines to define the entire school system, it hasn’t always been like this.

Next week, the Eyewitness News iTeam will take a look at how West Virginia used to divide its school districts and offer some possible solutions to questions surrounding the 55-county system and what it might take to make major changes.

~~  WCHS/WVAH ~~

Yes, West Virginia spends a LOT of money on education.
But where does it go?  Is it wasted?  Down the drain hole of bureaucracy?

We spend 7th highest per student and what to show for it?
Being 49th or 50th in ratings?

Comment by where does the money go?  on  02.27.2019

It amazes me that the so-called “experts” think more and more centralization will improve anything.  Public school education is in terrible condition and doing more consolidation will only make it worse and more expensive.  With all the technology today, there is NO reason for busing children for miles and miles, spending more and more hours under the control of public schools.  The idea that parents are not capable of deciding how to educate their children is insulting.  There was never any good reason for governments to get involved in education.

Comment by Karen Pennebaker  on  02.28.2019

Pennybaker is correct.
WV educators keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Whats the definition of insanity?

Comment by Gilmer  on  03.02.2019

A major cause of WV’s dismal record with K-12 education is the lack of choice regarding a parent’s right to decide on the school for a child to attend.

The elite get around that by using private schools for their kids.

Under existing conditions what chance do the rest of us have? The answer is none!

Our kids are victimized because competition and accountability do not exist and that is exactly what WV’s entrenched education establishment and the unions want.

Comment by Save WV's School Children  on  03.02.2019
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