Why did RA bond fail? We already know the reasons

Last week, Nancy Walker — who is stepping down from the Mon County Board of Education after 28 years — recommended to her fellow board members that they pursue a “voter engagement poll” to see why the Renaissance Academy bond was rejected by an overwhelming margin.

Ideally, she said, the architectural firm tapped to design the STEM school, DLR Group, would front the costs for the public survey, but we find it doubtful the company would take on the expense for a project that seems unlikely to be funded. Nor do we think it would be financially prudent for the board of education to hire a third party to conduct a poll. Not when there are far more cost effective, though perhaps time-intensive, alternatives, such as free-to-make Google Form that can be formatted with both multiple choice and short answer questions, or simply perusing comments and posts on social media.

Because despite the board’s seeming confusion, Mon County residents and voters have not been shy about sharing their concerns about the Renaissance Academy. We’ve heard them again and again — in letters to the editor, on social media, in conversations with family members and friends — and common themes emerged.

  • How will the Renaissance Academy be staffed when there is already a teacher shortage in public education?
  • How will kids get to and from the academy when the bus driver shortage has caused daily route cancellations?
  • How much educational/classroom time will students lose due to the commute to and from the academy?
  • What happens if a child coming from the academy doesn’t make it back to their primary school in time to catch their bus home?
  • How would the academy interfere with traditional academic classes? For example, if classes at the academy — or designated travel time to or from the academy — are at the same time as another class that student must take.
  • And, of course, the question of the cost. The $142.6 million taxpayers are being asked to contribute only pays for the construction of the facility. How will everything else — staffing, supplies, utilities, etc. — be paid for? Will that money come from other schools’ budgets? Or will an additional levy be required to cover the day-to-day costs?

We also noticed a distinct dichotomy of thought among many opponents: Either they perceived the new STEM school as just one more advantage to the smart kids who don’t need any more special privileges, or they saw the Renaissance Academy as a shiny, new, very expensive vocational school — merely an upgraded MTEC.

Voters wanted to know the nuts-and-bolts of the STEM school’s future day-to-day operations. Obviously, they did not think their questions had been satisfactorily answered. They might have supported a detailed plan, but they weren’t prepared to pay $143 million for an optimist’s dream.

Our list may not be comprehensive, but it should be enough of a start for the board. So, instead of hiring outside pollsters, the board of education should invest that money in educating the community. And we don’t mean a webpage link on the BOE’s website. We mean an engaged campaign that actively listens to and responds to concerns in real time, whether that be town hall meetings, live chats on social media or informational booths at any of Morgantown’s many upcoming events.

Whatever the method of outreach, board members and other academy proponents cannot continue to respond to criticism or questions by painting a utopian picture and giving vague assurances that the academy is essential to Mon County’s future. They must come armed with answers to specific concerns and be prepared to have in-depth conversations. That’s the only way they’ll turn Renaissance Academy opponents into supporters.