School consolidation talk sends shock waves through Wise County

Stephen Igo • Feb 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

WISE — High school consolidation foes on Monday implored the Wise County School Board to keep all six of the county’s high schools open, while the cold hard numbers spoke for themselves.

School division administrators delivered the final report that assesses cost projections and other factors applied to renovating all six schools, building six new ones, or closing all existing high schools and building one, two or three new facilities.

Consolidation opponents, including a particularly large contingent from St. Paul, weighed in prior to the presentation of the in-house comparative study of the options, which project a cost of $89.4 million to renovate the six schools and $107.3 million to build six new ones.

To close all the existing facilities for new, fewer facilities, the study projects $91.4 million to build three new schools, $80.7 million to build two new facilities, and nearly $81 million to build one new county high school.

There are about 2,100 high school students in Wise County, with student populations ranging from about 200 to a high of about 500. Three new high schools to replace the six would be based on the premise of 700 students in each.

Opponents told the board even that number is too large, citing concerns over personal attention from teachers, participation in extracurricular activities, and discipline problems. Debbie Baca of St. Paul said greater opportunities for students exist at smaller schools. Referring to Hillary Clinton’s mantra that it “takes a village to raise a child,” Baca told the board to “leave our children in our village so we can raise them and help you educate them.”

Bob Harrison of St. Paul urged the board to build two or three new high schools in communities that need them and renovate the other three. A proposal was floated in December to build new schools in Coeburn, Big Stone Gap and Wise, and renovate those in St. Paul, Pound and Appalachia.

Peggy Jordan-Austin of St. Paul said towns stripped of their high schools would shrivel and die and asked the board to “preserve the town of St. Paul.” Ann Gregory of St. Paul, a former member of the board, urged board members to hold public hearings on the issue in all six communities.

Danny Stallard of Wise was the lone proponent of consolidation to speak on Monday. He told the board that it is “foolish to renovate” six antiquated facilities and urged the board to build two new ones to serve the county’s 2,000 or so high school population, possibly minus the 200 or so Stallard said already hail from other counties.

The numbers provided the board in the form of the comparative assessment, meanwhile, speak volumes.

According to the final report, projected annual cost estimates of retaining six schools reflect a projection of more than $11 million in employee costs compared to less than $8.4 million for three new schools, $8.3 million for two, and less than $7.3 million for one.

Wise County currently spends nearly $427,000 each year for 172 athletic coaches at its existing six schools, a cost projected at around $271,000 for three schools, $248,000 at two, and $158,000 at just one.

Electricity and fuel oil costs at the existing six schools currently run over $755,000 annually. That would be cut to $524,000 for three schools, and around $460,000 for one and two facilities.

The county currently spends better than $48,000 each year for water and sewage services at its existing six schools, costs projected to be right around $15,000 for three schools and $13,000 for one or two schools.

Technology costs currently run at $156,000 annually at all six schools, with projections of $78,000 at three schools, $52,000 at two, and $26,000 at one. Transportation costs are the only expense on the plus-side of retaining all six schools, with an additional cost of more than $91,000 per year to transport students to three new schools, $216,000 to two new schools, and better than $303,000 to just one new high school.

In sum, the administration’s study projects an annual operational cost savings of nearly $3.3 million per year with three new schools over the existing six-school system, a savings of nearly $3.4 million with two new schools, and $4.4 million with one new school.

Also, the annual debt service to renovate all six schools is put at nearly $6.8 million per year, nearly $7.9 million for six new facilities, $3.7 million for three new schools, $2.8 million for two, and less than $1.8 million for one. The projected annual debt service is important when viewed against the annual operational cost projections of the various options, particularly considering no savings to cover annual debt service costs if the board opts to retain the existing six-school system.

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