The county unit plan for school systems, adopted in 1933, was among the most sweeping education reforms in West Virginia’s history. Previously, schools had been run by city and magisterial district boards, a system that provided local autonomy but was often marred by inefficiency, corruption, and nepotism. The Great Depression forced changes. The reduction in property tax provided by the Tax Limitation Amendment, approved in 1932, diminished the amount of money available to local districts, which had previously provided nearly 95 percent of the cost of education. The state had to assume greater responsibility for public education.
Various plans were proposed, but the county unit plan supported by Governor-elect Herman Guy Kump was chosen, becoming effective May 22, 1933. The plan was a compromise between local autonomy and state control. It abolished 398 local school districts, including 54 independent ones, replacing them with 55 county districts, one for each county of the state. Each district was governed by a five-member county school board, elected by popular ballot. For the first time, all school superintendents were required to have a college education.
In its first year, the plan cut the number of teachers from 16,282 to 15,340, saving $4,564,710. School bus transportation across former district lines allowed smaller schools to consolidate. The county districts still struggled, but they managed to pay their teachers and continue nine month school terms. In many other states, teachers’ salaries fell millions of dollars in arrears and terms were cut to six months during the Depression. Some West Virginia counties had to reduce term length in 1933 and again in 1937–39, but for the most part, the state maintained its commitment to a nine-month term.
The county unit plan did not please everyone. Several lawsuits were brought against it. Seeking more funds for teachers and education, Superintendent of Schools W. W. Trent was frequently at odds with Kump and his successor, Governor Homer Holt. Money for school construction and building maintenance was virtually nonexistent. The average salary for teachers and principals dropped 12 percent. Governor Kump called for further reductions in teachers’ salaries but was rebuffed by the legislature. The loss of local schools through consolidation was often emotionally painful for small communities, but overall the county unit system was praised around the nation for what it achieved.
This Article was written by Gerald D. Swick
Ambler, Charles H. & Festus P. Summers. West Virginia: The Mountain State. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1958.
Thomas, Jerry Bruce. An Appalachian New Deal: West Virginia in the Great Depression. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
Ambler, Charles H. A History of Education in West Virginia: From Early Colonial Times to 1949. Huntington: Standard Printing & Publishing, 1951.