McDowell County has energetic helpers
In 2001, state officials took control of the McDowell County school system, which local officials had run into the ground despite receiving from state taxpayers more money per pupil than the national average.
McDowell's school system included schools without principals, at least one teacher with no college degree, and students who could not attend because the district failed to hire substitutes when bus drivers called in sick.
Those students were marked as present anyway to keep attendance looking good. Officials fudged test scores. There were irregularities in central office spending.
Now, 12 years later, the state has finally passed control back to a local school board that has an energetic new partner - Reconnecting McDowell.
It's a public-private partnership headed by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Gayle Manchin, a state school board member and the wife of Sen. Joe Manchin.
Their partnership's efforts are laudable, but this is not the first time someone has tried to save McDowell County. In the 1960s, the federal government invested money to help the county make the transition as the coal industry died out.
"Eight community centers were opened, each with a library and recreation area, classrooms for Head Start and well-equipped sewing and cooking areas.
Instructors were hired to teach adult education and home economics," the New York Times wrote in an article in 1966. "Recreation directors were employed.
"Then, with everything in place, the word was sent out to the poor: Come to classes because they are good for you . . . Everything will be different for you from now on."
Little changed, the senator's wife told Philip Elliott of The Associated Press.
"Their heart was in the right place, and they came in with the grants and instituted these programs," she said. "Everything was fine for six months and they went away and the program died."
Those are lessons learned.
State taxpayers have an obligation to provide good schools for children. It's in the state constitution and the heart of every West Virginian.
What is needed in a community is the same thing needed in a healthy individual: a purpose in life.
Decades ago, coal provided that. Now there's very little economic base to work from.
If community leaders can't find new industries and new purposes, the helpful architecture that well-meaning people put in place will not, in the end, be sustainable.