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McDowell County regains control of school system

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - After 12 years under state control, the McDowell County school system has regained local power over its schools.

The state Department of Education took control of the school system in 2001, after a report found that "extraordinary circumstances existed that constituted major impediments to the provision of education programs and services for students."

The county has long been plagued with poverty and problems with addiction; its schools consistently perform below average. And more than a decade ago, the county's management of its schools was disorganized and ineffective.

But after 12 years working with state education officials and a slew of additional education performance audits, officials recommended that the state return full control to the McDowell County school system.

Related: In rural W.Va., schools rethink their role 

The state school board approved that measure Wednesday during a regular meeting that was held in McDowell County. Board President Wade Linger cited efforts by the initiative known as Reconnecting McDowell as a sign of progress.

"The McDowell County School System has faced challenges, but today teachers, parents and students should be proud of what they have accomplished," Linger said in a statement. "I am confident this school system will thrive and continue to grow stronger each day."

Board members also voted to leave the county's current superintendent, Nelson Spencer, in his position. Spencer was appointed last year.

Wednesday's meeting was held in tandem with a regular meeting for Reconnecting McDowell, the nonprofit that has invested millions into community development efforts in the county since late 2011.

The American Federation of Teachers has spearheaded that project. The AFT and the Benedum Foundation, a philanthropic organization, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the private-public partnership.

The plan includes efforts to create jobs, hire teachers and improve transportation and technology.

About 78 percent of school employees recently voted to approve a district-wide plan developed by Reconnecting McDowell, the county school system and the AFT.

That effort will be combined with changes resulting from a measure approved by the state Legislature during the last legislative session, part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform package, that establishes "collaborative innovation zones" in the county.

The idea is to forge "community schools" that focus on health and human services in addition to academics. 

Contact writer Shay Maunz at or 304-348-4886.

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