When Frank Blackwell began as the Wyoming County Schools superintendent in 1982, the coal industry was booming. School personnel were being recruited, new buildings were being built and the number of students was increasing.
Soon after, however, the county economy spiraled down. As the coal market tumbled, student enrollment followed – sometimes at the rate of more than 300 students a year.
Today, more than three decades later, the school system is still trying to recruit teachers – due to a statewide shortage of teachers, not a bustling economy.
New buildings are still going up – due to aging facilities, not an increase in student numbers.
The enrollment, which has edged up and down slightly over the last decade, now stands at 4,142 students. In 1982, when Blackwell began as superintendent, the county had a student enrollment of 8,596.
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For nearly half-a-century, Blackwell has been an educator – working as a teacher and principal before becoming an assistant superintendent in 1979, then county schools superintendent in 1982.
Blackwell is a graduate of Mullens High School and holds both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Marshall University. He began his career as a fourth grade teacher in Arlington, Va. While earning his master’s degree, he taught fourth grade in Cabell County.
In 1971, he returned to Mullens, with his wife, Trudy, and their seven-month-old daughter, and was named principal of Glen Fork Grade School.
Blackwell served in the West Virginia House of Delegates from 1977-82, but had to walk away from the office to accept the county superintendent’s position.
If he completes his current contract, Blackwell will become the longest serving county schools superintendent in West Virginia, with 34 years at the helm. That record is now held by George W. Bryson, superintendent of McDowell County Schools from 1935-68.
Blackwell announced his retirement, effective June 30; but, he has been approached by numerous people to reconsider that decision.
If he does retire June 30, he wants the school system to continue to make progress in the coming year and long after he has left his office.
“I want to finish our wireless project in all our schools. We should finish that either late this year or early next year.”
Blackwell believes that providing students with access to computers is an invaluable part of their education in today’s global climate.
“Each of our schools has multiple computer labs, all with internet access,” he said. “We’re quickly moving toward wireless capability and mobile computer labs.
“We’re trying to upgrade all our programs.
“Our maintenance employees now have iPads. That’s improved communications between employees and saved us money.
“This will also allow us to better track our equipment.
“It’s another step forward,” he noted.
“I would like to improve our Mullens area schools – whether it’s a new school or a completely renovated school,” Blackwell said.
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Earlier this year, Blackwell was named the 2016 West Virginia Superintendent of the Year by the West Virginia Association of School Administrators.
Overall, Blackwell’s career has been marked by numerous successes and awards.
Of course, in 33 years, there have also been difficulties and controversies.
Blackwell has led efforts to bring in millions of dollars, from a variety of sources, in grants and other competitive funding sources to improve facilities in Wyoming County.
Road Branch Elementary and Middle School was Blackwell’s first new school as superintendent. The facility was built entirely with county money on a pay-as-you-go basis, taking more than six years to complete in construction phases. Phase one included kindergarten and first grade classrooms; the students were moved from the existing 1930s-era building into the new one to relieve overcrowding. For approximately five years, students were divided – the youngest students attending school in the new building, while older students stayed in the old facility.
An additional four new schools have been built during Blackwell’s administration with West Virginia School Building Authority funding, including Wyoming County East and Westside high schools in addition to Pineville Elementary and Huff Consolidated Elementary and Middle schools. Of course, additional funding sources were required with each, including some county monies.
He has supervised major renovations to every school in the county, including rebuilding after the July 8, 2001 flooding disaster, which created $7 million in damages across the school system.
“It’s always been important to me that all Wyoming County boys and girls have a safe, healthy educational environment,” he noted.
He is also quick to point out that Wyoming County students are competing successfully at state and national levels.
As for the difficulties and controversies: With the exception of three years, Blackwell has kept Wyoming County Schools in the black. However, using county funding to build Road Branch Elementary and Middle School along with a simultaneous series of annual state budget cuts, by then-Gov. Gaston Caperton, forced the county school system into the red for three consecutive years.
As a result of a continually declining student enrollment – which translates directly into less money for the county – Blackwell also spearheaded the consolidation of 26 schools into 14 over the course of a decade.
For two of the years from 1982-2015, Blackwell wasn’t actually in the superintendent’s office. On Aug. 11, 1986, the board of education, with a split vote, fired Blackwell for “insubordination.” Back from a month-long medical leave, Blackwell declined to make a personnel recommendation for one position. He told the board he would make the recommendation at the next meeting, but was unprepared at the time due to the medical leave. Following a two-year court battle and a cost of more than a quarter of a million dollars to taxpayers, the West Virginia Supreme Court reinstated Blackwell with back pay and legal fees – as if he’d never been fired.
Not long afterward, Blackwell accepted the job as Region I Education Service Agency (RESA I) director. However, then-board member Sam Foglesong, now deceased, talked Blackwell into staying on as the county schools superintendent. It is a decision, Blackwell said, he doesn’t regret.
In the late 1980s, Blackwell also withstood an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office into Wyoming County political corruption in the school system and the county commission. By mid-1989, a former county commissioner, a board of education member, a board employee and a contractor had pleaded guilty to various charges as a result of the investigation.
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“It’s been a very rewarding career,” Blackwell emphasized.
“It’s been an honor and a pleasure to work for the citizens, and the children, of Wyoming County.
“I’ve enjoyed living here and working here. Wyoming County has good people.
“Hopefully, we can weather this current economic storm – we’ve done it before.”