Nicholas County schools get FEMA extension

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has pushed back, from Sunday to late December, the deadline for agreement on a plan to rebuild, and possibly consolidate, the Nicholas County schools that were closed after the June 2016 flood.

The extension gives Nicholas school board members more time to possibly explore and approve a new consolidation plan, following the West Virginia Board of Education’s vote last week to deny their proposal to consolidate five schools from Richwood, Summersville and Craigsville onto one campus near Summersville.

The Nicholas board members, who voted unanimously in March to approve that plan, voted the night after the state school board’s denial to sue for reversal of the state board’s denial. They also voted to direct schools Superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick to solicit alternative plans in the following two weeks.

Rebecca Tinder, an attorney for the Nicholas board, said she expects the lawsuit to be filed this week.

Nicholas board President Gus Penix said Wednesday that, even with the time extension, he supports continuing with the lawsuit to contest the state board’s denial.

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

The Nicholas board planned to use FEMA flood-recovery money to build the consolidated campus, rather than using that money to rebuild the three destroyed schools. The county board also planned to use the money to merge two schools that didn’t close after the flood, Nicholas County High, in Summersville, and the vocational education center, in Craigsville, into the consolidated campus.

Nicholas school officials had expressed concern about missing a June 25 FEMA funding deadline. FEMA spokesman Will Powell 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.”

FEMA Region III External Affairs Director Dan Stoneking said Wednesday that the extension had been granted.

He wrote in an email that, on May 25, about three weeks before the state board’s denial of Nicholas’ consolidation plan, West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Jimmy Gianato forwarded to FEMA a May 16 letter from state School Building Authority Executive Director Frank “Bucky” Blackwell.

The letter requested, according to Stoneking, “a six-month time extension for the 12-month period under the Public Assistance Alternative Procedures for permanent work, to allow the Sub-grantee, Grantee and FEMA to agree to a scope of work and fixed cost estimate for the replacement of the three schools in Nicholas County.”

Neither Gianato’s division nor FEMA provided copies of the extension request and approval documents by press time Wednesday.

West Virginia schools Superintendent Steve Paine said at last week’s state board meeting that Gianato seemed confident that a six-month extension would be allowed to receive FEMA money for a plan like the one Scott Raines, the SBA’s director of school planning and construction, revealed for the first time at that board meeting.

Raines presented a general 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.

Raines said he’d previously discussed the plan only with Paine and 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 in April or May.

After the state’s denial last week, the Nicholas board decided to take legal action through a voice vote, with no nays heard. Steve Ward, FEMA’s disaster recovery manager for the flood, then told the Nicholas board that, for the “428” funding path it has been pursuing, “the amount of money has to be negotiated and fixed, and that agreement has to be signed.”

“Within the six-month period?” Penix asked.

“Right now, within the next week and a half,” Ward replied.

He had said of time extensions that “none of these are givens” or “automatic” and that he wasn’t the one who could approve extensions.

“We have been trying to get our CEFP [comprehensive educational facilities plan] amendment approved for months so we could move ahead with this project,” Nicholas board member and West Virginia Association of School Administrators Executive Director A.J. Rogers said to Ward. “And we’ve been denied and, yesterday, we were denied our CEFP amendment by the state board.”

“So, in essence, the state board, in their denial of this board’s request, has gambled up to $120-$130 million for Nicholas County Schools,” Rogers continued.

“I can’t disagree with the statement,” Ward said. “In order to be able to utilize the 428 program, I can’t overestimate or overemphasize the need for a negotiated agreement for the entire amount.”

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

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