This is the latest in an occasional series focusing on the issues,
records and platforms of the state's candidates for governor.
Today's installment focuses on education.
There he was, the governor of West Virginia, standing behind the
lectern inside the Harts High School gymnasium, doling out grant
money for a new kitchen in the senior center, and he got to talking about
that one-room schoolhouse in Tyler County.
Underwood always talks about the one-room schoolhouse. He has a model
of the schoolhouse in the governor's reception room at the state Capitol.
The one-room schoolhouse he attended as a boy. The one-room schoolhouse
where he worked as a janitor for three years.
And then - and this is where everyone in the packed Lincoln County
gymnasium started to listen - he started talking about technology, wiring
this? - about keeping Lincoln County's four high schools open, about
This from the Republican governor who never spoke against a single
"We need to look at putting together a network to provide services and
eliminate the need for consolidation," Underwood said.
And like that, the people were on their feet. They were electrified.
They were applauding, hooting and hollering. Before Underwood, every state
and local education official had vowed to shut down the four high schools
and build a new one.
But the governor, he was on a roll now, he sensed it, and he was
talking about using the Lincoln distance-learning project as a model for
the rest of the state. The rest of the state.
Underwood had just put the state's most contentious, most divisive
education issue - consolidation - back on the campaign table.
"This is absolutely amazing," said Beth Spence, co-director of
Challenge West Virginia, an organization that
ramifications could be unbelievable. It could change education policy. It
could stop the freight train of closing down schools."
- - -
Congressman Bob Wise's camp was quick to respond to Underwood's
proposal. They dismissed it as an 11th-hour campaign ploy, a cruel
election ploy at that, one that would raise false hopes for Lincoln County
parents and children. Everyone knows the schools are going to close.
"After you do distance learning you're still going to have four
crumbling structures," said Wise, the Democratic challenger. "He walked in
and simply blew up that plan. It shows he's ignorant of the issue or just
used bad judgment."
Underwood hadn't talked about his proposal with state schools
Superintendent David Stewart and Lincoln County Superintendent Bill
Before they debated consolidation, Wise and Underwood discussed
"need-based" college scholarships, raising teacher salaries, raising
up in schools and supports voluntary school prayer. Wise does not.
Neither candidate has come forward with an education plan, platform or
But consolidation, closing schools, will tug, wake and stir the
West Virginia electorate.
The state's education establishment has dug its heels into the notion
that "bigger is better." With a bigger school, you can offer more
advanced courses, more technology, more foreign languages, more counselors
West Virginia's student population is shrinking - and fast. Young
families are leaving the state in droves. Enrollment has declined faster
than any state in the nation. Fewer students, fewer schools needed. End of
But not everyone buys it. Research shows that disadvantaged kids do
better in small schools. The bus rides are shorter. More students
participate in extracurricular activities. The schools help to keep
Before Underwood walked into that Harts High School gymnasium,
it seemed Wise had the small school supporters on his side.
It was something he said last year, something deep and personal that
caught everyone's attention. Wise said he sometimes felt lost in high
The comments came a few months after the Columbine tragedy when some
elected officials, such as North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, started talking
about small schools as a way to curb violence.
Wise stated he didn't think a high school should house more than
1,000 students, a middle school no more than 800, an elementary
You won't hear West Virginia education officials rattle off those
limits - though for the most part West Virginia schools are small by
But Wise had given the anti-consolidation folks a glimmer of
"Bob is in no rush to consolidate schools," said Mike Plante, a Wise
- - -
Bob Wise huddled with 70 Riverside High School students in the
AT&T. The company had invited him to chat with students about