In rural Clay County, families fight to avoid losing beloved schools

By: - November 13, 2023 6:00 am

H.E. White Elementary School in Clay County may be closed. (Ellie Heffernan | West Virginia Watch)

CLAY COUNTY, W.Va. Breakfast with Santa. A clothing drive for your neighbors. Community movie night. Your son’s birthday party. 

No matter the occasion, if you’re hosting an event in Bomont, West Virginia, there’s a good chance you’ll hold it at H.E White Elementary School. Aside from a nearby Methodist church, this school is the only non-residential building in Bomont — home to several hundred West Virginians. 

And, as many residents expressed during a public hearing earlier this month, that makes H.E. White the heart of Bomont. 

“We’re just not a school. We’re a family. We’re a community,” resident Karen Mance testified during the hearing, as tears welled up and a lump formed in her throat. “These kids have a tough time growing up already without taking the only place they’re familiar with throughout every day, away from home. I ask, can you please try to find some way to save this school?”

Despite tireless protests from generations of West Virginians, Clay County will likely close at least one elementary school Wednesday night at a special meeting of the board of education— potentially two. Both H.E. White and Lizemore Elementary School may cease to exist. 

The Clay County Board of Education meeting for Monday, Nov. 13, was cancelled, and the board president called a special meeting to be held 6 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 15 at Clay County High School.

After West Virginia ended fiscal year 2023 with a $1.8 billion state budget surplus, the Clay County Board of Education proposed consolidating the schools and sending affected students to Clay Elementary School. This way, the county can offer an “education curriculum that they currently cannot afford to provide all students” and save just over $1 million in annual expenses. 

It seems no corner of West Virginia has been spared from school closures, more formally known as “school consolidations.” At the end of the 1959-1960 school year, West Virginia had more than 2,800 schools, according to The West Virginia Encyclopedia. Decades of consolidation followed, mainly affecting smaller, older schools with higher costs. By the beginning of this century, fewer than 900 schools remained throughout the state. 

In the past two decades alone, roughly 200 more schools have closed, leaving behind heartbroken, sometimes bitter communities. 

County school board members often close schools, despite this widespread public outcry, because there are no other options left.  

“The only reason you would think about closing a school is if you just couldn’t make it work financially,” said Clay County Schools Superintendent Phil Dobbins, during an interview earlier this year. “No one wants to close schools. I don’t want to close schools. That’s the hub of the community. Especially in these small communities, that’s like the centerpiece.”  

All throughout West Virginia, small, rural communities are facing declining enrollment, and, as an extension, less revenue from the property taxes that fund schools. 

Clay County Schools faces a particularly dire situation because it recently lost more than $530,000 in annual funding. Residents repeatedly voted against re-approving an excess school levy — a longstanding tax that provided extra money for county schools. Multiple people attributed this outcome to growing distrust of the county school system, which last year was placed under a Special Performance Review by the state Department of Education. 

If the county Board of Education votes to shutter H.E. White and Lizemore, it’s unlikely that trust will grow. 

Parents say they’re worried about more than the loss of a community gathering place.  They’re worried about proposed bus routes, many of which would require young children to ride around two hours roundtrip each day. They’re worried about their children adjusting to life in a bigger school without all the teachers and neighbors they know. And they’re particularly worried about the area’s poorest students. 

Bomont is located in a census tract where the per capita income is just over $15,000 annually, and over half of children live in poverty. 

“They have little parties and stuff like that at H.E. White. And some of them kids get a ride with somebody, and it’s very sad that that’s all they have,” said Lois Ann Harmon, a former social worker whose grandkids attend the school. “A lot of the kids that go there are so poor, that’s where their clothes come from — the shoes that’s on their feet — from people at H.E. White donating to them.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the Clay County Board of Education meeting scheduled for Monday, Nov. 13, 2023 has been cancelled, and the board will hold a special meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023 at 6 p.m. at Clay County High School.


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Ellie Heffernan
Ellie Heffernan

Ellie Heffernan is a freelance journalist with five years of experience covering local news. Her work has taken her from Maryland to North Carolina to West Virginia. She has written for INDY Week, The Local Reporter, The Daily Record and, most recently, Mountain State Spotlight.