Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bragging on Braxton

Recently we found ourselves in Braxton County on Interstate 79 around suppertime. For the most part, I-79 runs through a very rural section of West Virginia. There are some beautiful views from the ridgetops, but there is not much commercial development along its path.

One place that has developed is the Flatwoods exit, which includes a major hotel/conference center on one side, and a shopping center featuring a number of outlet stores on the other side (including a factory outlet for West Virginia’s own Fiestaware). Of course, it also has a collection of gas stations and restaurants (including a Custard Stand, which is another interesting West Virginia business story). Along what can be a rather desolate drive (especially at night), Flatwoods seems to be a major oasis.

A friend of mine has an interesting opinion on how the hotel/conference center began there. He envisions a meeting of community leaders, as they brainstormed ways to make their county a destination place, where someone must have lamented “How are we going to get tourists to come when we are stuck here smack dab in the middle of nowhere?” Suddenly, a light bulb went off in another leader’s head that being located in the geographical center of West Virginia might make an appealing location—at an equitable distance for all potential attendees—for various statewide organizations holding meetings, annual conferences, and such. Sometimes being in the middle of nowhere has its advantages!

Thus, the Flatwoods exit became what it is today. However, on this particular day at suppertime, we didn’t stop at Flatwoods—we ventured a couple of miles off the interstate exit just south of Flatwoods to visit nearby Sutton, the county seat of Braxton County. Listening to West Virginia Public Radio over the years had made us aware of one of their sponsors called “CafĂ© Cimino” in downtown Sutton, so we wanted to see what it was all about. As far as we knew, it might have been just a glorified coffee bar, and we aren’t coffee drinkers. But we soon found out it was quite a culinary feast.

The big Victorian mansion beyond the courthouse near the end of the main street now provides bed and breakfast lodging, as well as a gourmet restaurant. Despite our t-shirt and jeans attire, we were warmly welcomed as we walked in the front door (the food might be “high society,” but their attitude isn’t). We were seated next to an ornate fireplace and were amazed at the grand interior surrounding us.

The waitstaff was very friendly, and a talented woman playing guitar serenaded the night’s customers. West Virginia arts and crafts as well as local pictures were displayed prominently. The meal itself rivaled some of the delicious dinners we have enjoyed on cruise ships. It included organic produce and locally sourced foods such as smoked trout. Although it was admittedly pricier than what we normally spend, the quality was excellent. Bravo to the chef!

We can’t eat there all the time, but once in a while it is nice to splurge. The whole evening was quite a memorable experience! We plan on returning when the weather is warmer so that we can enjoy their outdoor seating, overlooking the Elk River below the Sutton Dam. We also noticed a few other restaurants that looked interesting near the historic Courthouse Square. Who would have suspected that downtown Sutton has developed into such a “foodie” destination? I-79 slightly sidestepped the county seat, but it is certainly worth checking out the Sutton exit instead of the Flatwoods exit.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Making a Difference

I was elected to the Wood County Board of Education for two terms (1992-2000), and served as the president of the West Virginia School Boards Association during my last year. Perhaps the most common lament I heard from fellow school board members around the state was bemoaning how little power we possessed. Many of us wanted to make a difference, but couldn’t see how anything could get done, given all the complex state and federal rules and regulations pertaining to education. It has been over a dozen years since my service ended, but one policy change we made two decades ago is still paying dividends today. As reported recently in the news, Wood County continues to lead the state of West Virginia in the number of National Board Certified teachers.

In the early ‘90s, merit pay was favored by some national leaders as a remedy to education deficiencies around the country. I was skeptical, because I could see the potential for lots of problems with favoritism, but if it could be based on objective merits, then I was interested. The best available non-biased measure in my mind was the then-relatively-new National Teacher Certification Board, which was designed to recognize outstanding teachers across the country. Just across the river from us, the state of Ohio began offering such a bonus for their teachers. We first tried to lobby legislators to grant a bonus to West Virginia teachers who obtained this certification, but it failed to get enough support. So we decided not to wait on the state, and instead to offer it as a local bonus to be paid from our excess levy proceeds. Since the state of Ohio had set a $3000 bonus, we decided to offer $3500.

We wanted to reward the outstanding teachers in our system, and encourage more of our employees to strive for this high achievement level. It would also serve as a recruiting tool to attract good teachers. Most importantly, it would benefit our children.

While any salary enhancement was appreciated, the teacher organizations would have preferred an across-the-board, flat rate pay raise (as did the administrators, although they preferred percentage increases rather than a specific amount). So this special bonus was spearheaded by—rather than merely approved by—the school board members. Eventually, the state legislature joined us and offered a similar statewide bonus of $3500 (thus resulting in a $7000 raise to qualifying teachers in Wood County).

There were other innovative policies our board initiated during my tenure (such as tuition reimbursement, Local School Improvement Council matching grants, extra pay for extra duty pay enhancements, extended experience increments, and classroom supply allocations, just to name a few), but this one is still garnering press and reaping benefits to this day. Educational leadership isn’t easy, and advances are incremental rather than dramatic, but board members must pursue creative solutions to improve the future for our children. You can make a difference!

[To see an article in Edutopia about my school board days (including pictures) check out]

Friday, January 4, 2013

150 years of independence!

In 2013, West Virginia is celebrating our 150th year of statehood—and “independence” from Virginia. The original state boundary of Virginia stretched all the way to the Ohio River. However, the vast majority of the Old Dominion population lived in the flatter eastern part of the state which had been settled first. For the most part, the citizens there looked down on the western counties as less civilized. Heck, those “primitive” western Virginians had even elected frontiersman Daniel Boone (who lived near Charleston at that time) to the fancy halls of the Virginia legislature!

Our needs were much different than those in the rest of the state, and those in power mostly ignored us. They apparently were happy to have our tax revenue, but we never seemed to get much of it back. The major expenditure made by the state of Virginia within our current boundaries was the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum at Weston (an interesting place to visit).

One big difference between western and eastern Virginia was slavery. The mountainous terrain of the western counties was not conducive to large scale farming of tobacco, cotton, etc. Thus, we never had a large slave population compared to the rest of Virginia and other southern states. Plus, most of us were too poor to own slaves.

When the Civil War came along, most in western Virginia saw no need to secede from the country we loved. If the leaders in Richmond were going to join the Confederacy, then this was our chance to go our own way. Our independent streak was strong! Thus, western counties refused to join the Confederacy and instead set themselves up as the reconstituted state of Virginia in Wheeling (at what is now a nice museum called Independence Hall). This allowed us, as the loyal Virginians, to have a government with representation in Washington.

What many of us in the western counties really wanted was to become our own state, rather than serving as a “shadow government” of our former state. We knew that we had not been treated fairly by the eastern Virginians who had always looked down on us. This seemed like our chance to free ourselves from their longstanding mistreatment. Otherwise, after the war ended, we might once again be taken advantage of by Richmond.

The decision to grant us statehood was not without controversy. In fact, some referred to West Virginia as the bastard state, because of our “illegitimate birth” during the Civil War. As Reconstruction began and the former Confederate states rejoined the United States, a special condition was added for Virginia—that they had to accept our creation as a separate state and not challenge the constitutionality of the process. But the politicians in Richmond still went after us.

Virginia sued West Virginia for debt repayment. Before the Civil War, Virginia had sold bonds for various civil projects—primarily to improve areas now outside the boundaries of West Virginia. After the Civil War, Richmond felt like we were liable to pay one-third of debt that had been incurred (regardless of the benefit to us) while we were considered one-third of the territory of Virginia (despite not having one-third of the population nor holding one-third of the wealth). We disagreed, and it was a long, hard fight all the way to the Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Virginia’s favor, but allowed us to set up a payment schedule, because we couldn't afford to pay it all at once. However, it still made it rough on the growth and prosperity of our little state. Most of us have forgotten this injustice, but at the time, Mountain State folks were very aware of and upset about these debt payments to Virginia. There was a big celebration when the last payment was made in 1939.

Unlike the Dakotas or the Carolinas (both equally balanced between north and south), there is no symmetry with the Virginias. We are sometimes seen as a sub-component of another state. It really irks us when we tell people we are from West Virginia and they reply with “Oh yeah, I drove through Roanoke once”—oblivious to the fact that West Virginia is a separate state, and not a region of Virginia.

West Virginians have a sense of being disrespected—we tend to carry a chip on our shoulders. We know what it is like to be that red-headed stepchild, with a constant need to prove our worth. Others may look down on us, but we are strong, we are independent, we are beautiful, and we are valuable. West Virginia is not the bastard state—we are the Mountain State, known as “Wild & Wonderful West Virginia.” We are the 35th star on Old Glory, and it is indeed, almost heaven.

A view of our state capitol, taken from across the Kanawha River on the campus of the University of Charleston (my alma mater).