Board votes unanimously against Homestead School closure

Homestead Principal Suzanne Cain, left, hugs parent Pamela Gragg after Monday night’s Randolph County Board of Education meeting, when board members decided unanimously not to accept a proposal to close the historic Homestead Elementary School.

DAILEY — In a surprise decision Monday night, Randolph County Board of Education members voted unanimously against the proposed closure of Homestead Elementary School, a move that will keep the historic building open — for now.

The 5-0 decision prompted applause and shouts of joy and “Hallelujah!,” as well as tears and hugs among many in the crowd of about 80 people.

“It’s the best Christmas present any Homestead parent could ask for,” said Crystal Pike, a parent who attended the meeting in the school’s gymnasium.

Board members voted after a four-hour session, during which they listened to comments from community members and school employees, studied materials presented by Superintendent of Schools Pam Hewitt, and asked questions of Board of Education staff. There were no executive sessions during the meeting, all of which took place in public before those in attendance.

Hewitt said the proposed closure of Homestead Elementary was based solely on financial constraints facing the Board of Education’s budget, and the school’s 106 students would have been split between George Ward Elementary in Mill Creek and Beverly Elementary School.

Closing the school could save approximately $850,000, she said, and the school building needs a number of costly repairs that could add up to an estimated $5 million. Some of the needed upgrades include a new roof and heating system, as well as plumbing and a new electrical system.

“It comes down to the funding,” Hewitt said, pointing out that declining student enrollment means declining revenues. “These are issues that have been accumulating over the years. … We don’t have the money to fix it.”

The school building sits on 17 acres, and it was built in 1939 and deeded to the county by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of 99 schools that were created as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, it’s the last one still in operation.

Most of the people who signed up to speak asked the board to delay closing the historic building until a better plan could be put in place.

“Losing the school and the land would be a huge mistake on the part of this district,” said Michelle Depp, a special education teacher at Tygart Valley Middle/High School whose two children attended Homestead Elementary. “This school serves as more than just a school — it is a meeting place, a recreational center for community youth sports that feed into the middle school program, and it serves as an anchor for the pride and history of this region.”

Depp said that as an employee and a community member, she understands the budget constraints, especially in light of the failed school levy. But she added, “closing this school will not solve your long-term issues for funding and budgets. It will only place a Band-aid on the issue for a short term.”

When parent Allen Simmons shared his comments with the board, he brought up concerns about overcrowded classrooms and longer bus routes. He also pointed to the value of the historic building and questioned why they would close one school and then have to create new classes and hire more teachers in other schools.

“I don’t see how you can justify more expenses, and more classrooms,” Simmons said.

Tom Rennix, president of the Tygart Valley Homestead Association, shared similar concerns during the public comments.

“Please remember just how many people are going to be negatively affected if Homestead School is closed,” Rennix said. “This situation isn’t just about a great and historic building, of which we are very fond. It’s about each and every individual human life that is connected to this school, and how those lives will be forever changed.”

Homestead Principal Suzanne Cain called the school “our home away from home,” and said things started to fall apart when the school was put on a closure list.

“The children deserve something better than the proposed plan,” Cain said. “Our Christmas wish is to keep Homestead open until we can come up with a better plan for our students and our community.”

Homestead Elementary serves students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. The proposed closure was part of a two-pronged plan that also included the closure of Valley Head Elementary School.

The board voted Friday night to accept that closure at the end of this school year, a move that will send the 29 Valley Head students to George Ward Elementary School in Mill Creek.

Hewitt said the board needs to make difficult decisions in order to avoid deficit spending. She said the state Board of Education placed Randolph County on a “watch list,” which means the county must provide monthly financial reports and is under a higher level of scrutiny.

“None of these decisions are easy on anyone,” she said, adding that no one was saying that the proposed closure was a reflection on the school or its personnel. “Right now we have more schools open than we can afford.”

All five school board members asked detailed questions about possible bus routes, alternative classroom options, school zones/boundaries, staffing changes and other details pertinent to the proposal before ultimately voting against the Homestead closure. Board member Lisa Wamsley participated by phone.

The next regularly scheduled Board of Education meeting is set for 5:30 p.m. Jan. 3 at the board office.

As for the Homestead community, Sonny Knaggs said he and other local residents will continue to band together and take their school budget woes to the state level.

“We’re just getting started,” he said.

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