WV BOE rejects plan to consolidate Nicholas schools

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail
Supporters of Richwood High School wear school colors at Tuesday’s West Virginia Board of Education meeting, in Charleston, where board members rejected a consolidation plan that would have merged Richwood and other schools into a larger school near Summersville.
KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail
State school board President Tom Campbell (left) and Superintendent Steven Paine listen to debate over a Nicholas County school consolidation plan at Tuesday’s meeting.
KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail
Quinn Raffo, a Richwood Middle School student, expresses her support for reopening Richwood High School, which was destroyed by last June’s massive floods.

The West Virginia Board of Education voted Tuesday to reject the Nicholas County school board’s proposal to consolidate five schools in Richwood, Summersville and Craigsville onto one campus near Summersville.

The vote came after a surprise public presentation from a state School Building Authority official and the state schools superintendent on a general alternative plan that would use differently the flood-recovery money that Nicholas expects to receive from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The problem is, I think in West Virginia, it’s time to look at alternatives other than consolidation,” state board President Tom Campbell said.

Jim Wilson was the only state board member heard voting no in the voice vote to shoot down the plan. Joseph Wallace, an Elkins-based attorney, was the only one of the nine voting members absent.

The vote, before a crowd of about 100 people in the state board meeting room in Charleston, came after people on the side favoring rebuilding schools in the Richwood area and people on the pro-consolidated-campus side were each given about 65 minutes to speak.

Then came more than two additional hours that included state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine calling Scott Raines, the SBA’s director of school planning and construction, to the lectern to reveal — for the first time publicly — a plan to instead create a consolidated Richwood Middle/Richwood High and a consolidated Summersville Middle/Nicholas County High.

Raines said the latter consolidation also could include the county’s vocational education center.

He said he’d previously discussed the plan only with Paine and SBA Executive Director Frank “Bucky” Blackwell. Raines said Blackwell told him in mid-to-late April that it would be good to look at alternatives to the Nicholas board’s plan. Raines said he and Blackwell then presented the alternative to Paine around April or May.

“I’m just thinking that this could be a win-win, and I don’t think that plan has ever been shared with anybody,” Paine said.

“The SBA is not lobbying for one plan or the other,” Raines said. He said the alternative plan doesn’t include any identified sites for the proposed consolidated schools.

Wilson said the plan was brought up at the “last minute.”

“I’m sure this board has done their due diligence,” Wilson said of the Nicholas board. “I’m sure they have looked at the alternatives. I myself may have done something different had I been sitting on their board, but I live in Marshall County and I’m four hours away from Nicholas County. I cannot put myself in their place, and I don’t feel it’s fair.”

Department of Education General Counsel Heather Hutchens said a court ruling on a past consolidation established that the state board has constitutional authority to make final decisions regarding school closures and consolidations.

“So, today, you have two options,” Hutchens told the state board members, most of whom weren’t on the board in January.

“One option is to approve the request of the Nicholas County Board of Education and approve the CEFP [comprehensive educational facilities plan] amendment and closures and consolidations that have been presented to you,” Hutchens said. “The other is to reject that request and, if the board does determine that the request will be rejected, then the board will need to articulate a reason why. The standard upon legal review will be whether or not this body acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner.”

Hutchens didn’t mention the third option — of tabling action on the Nicholas school board’s plan until another time. Tuesday’s meeting was the first time the state board took up the issue.

“A tabling is not a decision, a tabling is a delay, so they only did have an opportunity for two decisions: to approve or reject,” Hutchens said after the meeting.

State board Vice President Dave Perry made the motion to reject the consolidation plan.

“Because I believe sufficient alternatives and possibilities have not been explored to be assured this plan is in the best interest of the students of Nicholas County, and specifically of those in the current Richwood Middle and Richwood High School areas,” Perry said as part of his successful motion to deny the plan.

Cheers and clapping rose up after the vote.

Six of the nine state board members — Wilson not among them — are appointees of Gov. Jim Justice, who had expressed opposition to the consolidation. Justice also appointed Blackwell. The Legislature confirmed the appointees.

But Justice spokesman Grant Herring wrote in an email Friday that, “Governor Justice has said all along that he won’t interfere with the decision and has not contacted any board of education members to discuss next week’s vote.”

“That was kind of a setup, wasn’t it,” Nicholas school board member Phil Berry said during his trip down the elevator with other Nicholas school officials after the vote.

It was unclear Tuesday what the Nicholas board will now decide to do. All five members of the county board voted for the plan that the state board shot down.

Nicholas board member Darrell White said the county board hasn’t decided if it will take legal action. Nicholas Superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick said there’s a board meeting set for tonight.

“We’re just tickled to death that our voices finally got heard,” Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber said, “and that we can take a look at other options that might be beneficial, ultimately, for not just Richwood but for all of Nicholas County and the state of West Virginia.”

Three Nicholas public schools — Richwood Middle, Richwood High and Summersville Middle — were closed because of last June’s massive floods.

The Nicholas board proposed using FEMA flood-recovery money to build the consolidated campus, rather than using that money to rebuild the destroyed schools.

Although students of the three schools had been learning in different locations this school year, those three schools still legally exist as distinct entities, so the state board had to sign off on their closings for Nicholas to build its consolidated campus.

Some officials had expressed concern about not getting the state board’s approval on the consolidation before a FEMA deadline, set for one year after the June 23 floods.

FEMA spokesman Will Powell has said, “The deadline for the submission of scopes of work and project estimates is June 25, 2017, which is a year from the presidential disaster declaration.” He also said that “extensions can be granted.”

Paine said Tuesday that West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Jimmy Gianato seemed confident that there will be a six-month extension allowed to receive FEMA money for a plan like the one Raines presented.

The Nicholas board’s proposed consolidated campus, at the Glade Creek Business Park, would merge Richwood Middle, Richwood High and Summersville Middle with two schools that didn’t close because of floods: Nicholas County High, in Summersville, and the county’s vocational education center, in Craigsville.

The Glade Creek Business Park is about 40 minutes from the Richwood schools. The consolidated campus was planned to include one middle school and one high school. They would be Nicholas’ only middle and high schools. The high school would incorporate the county’s vocational education.

Richwood would be left with one school: Cherry River Elementary.

Tuesday’s meeting featured state board members questioning Richwood officials over the cost of the Glade Creek site. Burge-Tetrick said the consolidated school would require 80 acres there, and state board member Debra Sullivan said the property was being promoted online by an agency at a cost of $50,000 per acre.

“As far as the property, if FEMA turns it down and says we’ll only give you a portion, well then we’re back to saying we need to figure out something else,” Burge-Tetrick replied. She said she’s talked to “an individual” and was told she could expect roughly a $2 million to $3 million price. She didn’t name that individual.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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