State News Friday January 29, 2010
Charleston Daily Mail
Billionaire Buffett family rescues school
by Zack Harold
Daily Mail staff
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Despite $9 million in renovations, the outside of Elkins Middle School doesn’t look much different.
But it’s what’s inside that counts.
All new furniture and lockers, upgraded computer labs and classrooms, upgraded lighting and new bathroom facilities now fill the half-century-old school, thanks in part to a generous $234,000 donation from Doris Buffett, sister of multi-billionaire Warren Buffett.
And then there are the improvements that can’t be easily seen – new electrical wiring, Internet hook-ups, telephone and intercom systems, air conditioning and heating.
“Everywhere you go, people are saying, ‘Oh, wow, have you been inside the school yet?’ ” Assistant Principal Angie Wilson said.
Buffett said she found out about Elkins Middle’s situation about three and a half years ago after Tammy Lipscomb, then a teacher at the school and now retired, sent a letter to her brother asking for help.
“This place was a hole,” Lipscomb said. “The wiring, they said, was equivalent to trailers. This place could’ve been an accident waiting to happen for over 50 years.
“I looked around this building and said, ‘These children should not sit in this hovel.’ ”
Buffett said once she heard about the school’s state of disrepair – bathrooms that didn’t work right, outdated and dangerous electrical systems, asbestos-lined walls – she knew she had to help.
“I believe in education in a major way, and to be trying to learn or trying to teach under those circumstances is tough,” she said.
Buffett said she thinks Lipscomb didn’t send the request directly to her because she already had helped the Elkins community on two other occasions.
“What she didn’t know is that my brother sends all the letters he gets requesting help to me,” she said, laughing.
Now, students and community members are preparing to celebrate the school’s grand re-opening by thanking Buffett for her generous donation.
Students moved back in earlier this month after 18 months of renovations. They spent that time in portable classrooms at Elkins High School.
The philanthropist arrived in the Mountain State Thursday afternoon and received a police and fire department escort from the Elkins-Randolph County Airport to Elkins’ Graceland Inn.
Operators of the historic mansion donated two rooms for Buffett and her special guests: two Afghani girls she’s sending to Virginia’s University of Mary Washington.
Elkins Middle is hosting a special ceremony for Buffett beginning at 8:30 a.m. today.
Elkins Mayor Duke Talbott plans to give her a key to the city, but students will present her with the “key to the heart of Elkins Middle School” and name her an “honorary Hornet,” Wilson said.
“She’s our queen bee, I think,” the assistant principal said.
Elkins Middle’s “Sunbeam Club,” a service organization inspired and named for Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation, will give her flowers.
Students also will tell Buffett about donations they’ve made to local causes. Lipscomb, the recently retired teacher, said community service was all the philanthropist asked in return for her foundation’s donation.
“Part of Doris’ philosophy is paying it forward,” Lipscomb said.
So Elkins Middle students have collected donations for the Randolph County Humane Society, Women’s Aid In Crisis and Children’s Health Service. Some of the children also have volunteered at the humane society by walking the shelter’s dogs in their free time.
After this morning’s activities, the school will host a “retro teachers” photo presentation to show students what their favorite educators looked like at their age. There also will be a dance, basketball and volleyball games for students, a Dance Dance Revolution video game tournament and a pep rally for tonight’s basketball game against Greenbank Elementary.
Tonight, Elkins Middle’s staff will have dinner with Buffett at the Halliehurst Mansion on the Davis and Elkins College campus.
On Saturday, the school will offer “dignitary tours” through the new facilities from 11:30 a.m. until noon.
At 1 p.m., the school will host another assembly featuring Buffett, State Superintendent Steve Paine, state Board of Education President Priscilla Haden, state board Vice President and Elkins resident Jennie Phillips, Randolph Board of Education President Edward Tyre, and G.T. “Buck” Smith, president of Davis and Elkins College.
Lipscomb said Buffett will leave West Virginia with a basket of gifts from the Mountain State, like a handmade wooden clock and honey. Buffet said she’s looking forward to the festivities.
“It’s going to be a huge amount of fun,” she said Thursday. “I grew up with real people, and I’m expecting to meet a bunch of real people today and tomorrow.”
Several years ago, Lipscomb wrote to Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation, requesting money to buy encyclopedias for her classroom. The foundation sent her $2,000.
Then, about four years ago, Elkins community members were raising money for a paralyzed local boy whose parents were losing their home.
“It was really a miserable situation,” Buffett said.
Buffet said her foundation usually offers “challenge grants,” matching whatever individuals raise one-to-one. But the community expected to raise only $3,000, and Buffett decided her usual ratio wouldn’t cut it.
“I thought $6,000 isn’t going to make a dent,” she said. “This is a really bad situation.”
So Buffett offered to match the community’s fundraising efforts two-to-one – and they wound up raising $22,000.
“I loved it,” she said.
This time, Buffett asked that the school raise $77,000 for the renovations and she would match it, Lipscomb said.
But when the school’s fundraising efforts weren’t moving along as expected, Buffett pledged to just give the school all the money it needed – $234,000.
The state School Building Authority and the Randolph County Board of Education covered rest of the renovation’s $9 million price tag.
Lipscomb said she believes Buffett’s donation moved those other entities to renovate Elkins Middle.
“I feel that because of her impetus saying, ‘These kids deserve better than this,’ the SBA said ‘Let’s fix this school,’ ” Lipscomb said.
Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939.