LOW MOOR — The fate of a proposal to merge Alleghany County and Covington schools will likely hinge on an important decision that will be made in coming weeks — which high school will remain open.

The Committee on Joint School Services met Thursday and it was updated on progress subcommittees are making as part of the process of putting a school-merger proposal together.

The recommendation regarding whether to use Alleghany High School or Covington High School in the merger system will come from a facilities subcommittee.

Jacob Wright, the chairman of the joint services committee, said the facilities subcommittee has met eight times and it has toured school buildings.

The subcommittee has decided to recommend that all elementary schools be kept open if merger occurs. However, the subcommittee is leaning toward having one middle school and one high school. Casey Field in Covington would be used for varsity sporting events. 

Wright said there are differing opinions on which high school would remain open. The joint school services committee and its subcommittees include representatives from each jurisdiction.

“We feel like we’ve made some headway. There’s some tough decisions that need to be made and we are all aware of that,” said Wright, who represents the Alleghany County School Board.

James Griffith of the Alleghany Board of Supervisors called the upcoming high school recommendation “a critical point” in the merger discussions.

He suggested that the joint committee freeze spending on attorneys and other consultants until that recommendation comes.

The committee is using $400,000 in state funds to cover its work. Any remaining money would go to Jackson River Technical Center, which is jointly operated by the two school divisions.

“I?don’t want to waste this money if it’s coming to a head and I?don’t want to leave money on the table for a law firm when we can use that money for our own JRTC,” Griffith said.

An architectural firm will present a facilities study to the committee in about two weeks. The committee will next meet on July 23 to discuss the study’s findings.

“We all know that this is the touchy subject of the whole consolidation. We want to make people understand we are going to have some real positives coming out of this,” Wright said of the pending high school recommendation.

“This is a working document. It’s something that is not finalized,” Wright said.

Jonathan Arritt of the Covington School Board said a finance subcommittee has been reviewing a financial analysis that was presented to the full committee in December.

The analysis said eliminating duplicative positions could save up to $900,000 per year. However, it would cost approximately $500,000 annually for the first few years of the merger to equalize salaries and benefits.

Arritt said an early-retirement incentive may be offered to eliminate positions through attrition. The subcommittee has requested information from Rockbridge County about an early retirement incentive it implemented in schools.

The budgeting process under a merged school division is also being evaluated by the finance subcommittee. The budgeting process will be more complex because the school division will be funded by two governments.

Arritt said the subcommittee is reviewing budgeting processes used by other combined school divisions in the state. 

The review will include a process used by the former Alleghany Highlands School Division, which was jointly operated by Alleghany County and Clifton Forge from 1983 to 2001.

A proposal to merge Alleghany County and Covington schools must be submitted to the Virginia Board of Education in early September.

State officials have said they want to see widespread community support behind the proposal. The committee is still evaluating options to conduct a telephone poll as part of its submission to the state.