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WV school board reiterates rejection of Nicholas consolidation plan

Gazette-Mail file photo

After meeting for roughly five hours on the Nicholas County school board’s consolidation plan Monday afternoon, ahead of a scheduled court hearing Tuesday morning, West Virginia Board of Education members reiterated their decision to deny the plan.

The Nicholas board’s lawsuit alleges that the state school board arbitrarily denied its plan. On Monday, the state board was much more detailed in its denial motion than it was when it first denied the plan June 13.

“I would move to reject Nicholas County’s proposed amendment to its CEFP [comprehensive educational facilities plan] inclusive of the closure of five schools,” state board Vice President Dave Perry said in his successful June 13 motion, “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.”

“At the last meeting, I made a motion which certainly explained why I moved to reject the proposed CEFP,” Perry said Monday. “My motion will be the same today, but I will articulate different reasons for inclusion.

“To date, I still have not seen evidence of meaningful dialogue between the citizens of the Richwood High School attendance area and the Nicholas County Board of Education concerning the future of the school system and the needs of their students,” Perry continued in Monday’s motion. “Sufficient FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] funding options exist to allow Nicholas County to rebuild the damaged schools without removing both Richwood High School and Richwood Middle School from the Richwood High School attendance area.”

He also stated in Monday’s motion that “there is evidence that there are parcels of land in the Richwood attendance area that would be suitable for a consolidated Richwood High School/Middle School or a single Richwood Middle School.” He said population trends show that the decline of population in the Nicholas County High School attendance area has been greater, percentage-wise, than the decline in the Richwood High School area. NCHS is in Summersville.

“Finally, and perhaps most significantly, student achievement data shows that Richwood High School, which is just over half the size of Nicholas County High School, and which has a much higher percentage of needy students, is doing a comparable job of educating students and is outperforming the state on five of eight major metrics,” Perry said.

Jim Wilson, of Marshall County, was the only state board member to vote against Monday’s motion. He also was the only member heard voting no in the June 13 voice vote to deny the plan, although Joseph Wallace was absent for that vote, and Wallace and Scott Rotruck were absent for Monday’s vote.

The state board heard members of the public speak for about an hour before Nicholas school board members and Nicholas school system officials were allowed to again argue that the state board should approve the consolidation plan. State board members then questioned the Nicholas school officials and others.

The state board’s emergency meeting Monday came after Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Duke Bloom ordered it and state schools Superintendent Steve Paine to show, if they could, why the state shouldn’t be forced to approve Nicholas’ proposed consolidations. Bloom has a hearing set for 10 a.m. Tuesday.

On June 27, the Nicholas board filed its lawsuit against the state board and Paine, alleging that the state arbitrarily denied the consolidation plan, that Gov. Jim Justice and Paine tried to block the plan and that Paine misled the state board.

The lawsuit, filed in Kanawha Circuit Court, also alleged that “political pressure” against the consolidation came from others, including Justice ally Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and state Supreme Court Administrative Director Gary Johnson, who served nearly a quarter-century as a Nicholas Circuit Court judge and is a former vice president of the Richwood High School Alumni Association.

The Nicholas board’s plan is to merge Richwood Middle, Richwood High, Summersville Middle, Nicholas County High and the county’s vocational education center (which is in Craigsville) into a consolidated campus near Summersville, using FEMA recovery money received after the devastating June 2016 floods across the state.

Richwood Middle, Richwood High and Summersville Middle were closed because of flood damage.

The morning after the Nicholas board filed its lawsuit, Bloom issued a “rule to show cause,” ordering the state board and Paine to explain why he shouldn’t rule in favor of the county.

“This Court FINDS that the Verified Petition for Writ contains sufficient averments to state a prima facie case to issue a writ of mandamus against Respondents,” Bloom’s order states. Prima facie generally means on first appearance.

“The Verified Petition for Writ contains detailed averments that demonstrate the State Board, with the assistance of Superintendent Paine, rendered its decision denying the Nicholas Co. BOE’s school closure/consolidation and CEFP amendment arbitrarily, fraudulently, in a partial manner and because of ulterior and improper motives.”

On Friday, Senior Deputy Attorney General Kelli Talbott, representing Paine and the state board, filed a motion asking Bloom to dismiss the case and vacate the rule to show cause. Bloom’s office said Monday morning that the judge hadn’t yet ruled on the motion.

The motion argues that the Nicholas board’s claims should be dismissed for various reasons. One is the county’s failure to provide the 30-day prior notice to a West Virginia government agency and the attorney general that’s reportedly required before suing that government agency.

Talbott’s motion also argues that a 1998 Supreme Court rule means “there is no such thing as a ‘rule to show cause’ in extraordinary writ practice before the circuit courts of the state.” The motion also argues that, specifically, the Nicholas board’s “political pressure” allegation doesn’t legally grant it help from a judge.

“Assuming that all of such allegations are true, the question arises as to how elected and appointed officials expressing their opinions or sympathies about Nicholas County schools constitutes a cause of action under West Virginia law,” the motion states. “Although such allegations make for interesting reading, the Petitioner states no legal basis upon which the Respondents can, in some manner, be held responsible for what Senator Manchin may or may not have said to a Nicholas County school official or what Governor Justice may have said to the press, etc. ...

“Moreover, the Petitioner cites no legal authority that would allow this Court to grant it relief because political figures engaged in alleged political activities. Ordinary ‘politics’ on matters of public interest related to West Virginia schools is not a cause of action sounding in civil or criminal law.”

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

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