With less than a week to spare, an administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency extended the deadline for the West Virginia to apply for funds to replace three Nicholas County schools destroyed in the June 2016 flood.
The state’s deadline has been extended by nine months — to the end of September 2018 — to apply for the funds, according to a letter from FEMA’s regional administrator, MaryAnn Tierney. The Governor’s Office received the letter Wednesday but informally learned of the extension in an email earlier this week, said Brian Abraham, general counsel.
FEMA approved Gov. Jim Justice’s request for the extension because of “positive negotiations” between the School Building Authority and the state and county school boards that have “demonstrated continued progress” toward an agreement, Tierney wrote.
The deadline to apply for funds was supposed to be Dec. 26. That was already extended from an earlier deadline in the summer. This latest extension came after a third-party consultant recommended the federal agency let state and local school boards have more time to come to an agreement on how to use FEMA money to rebuild after the June 2016 flood.
For more than a month, Nicholas County and state officials have met privately with representatives from the Consensus Building Institute, a nonprofit consulting group that helps government and private entities resolve disputes. FEMA paid for the consultants’ work, Abraham said.
In a 34-page report, the consultants recommended a formal mediation process. They sent the report out to local officials earlier this week.
The consultants also recommended that, during the formal mediation process, the Nicholas school board should hold off on voting on any bond related to rebuilding the schools and that the state school board hold off on any actions to take over.
“One risk of holding confidential negotiations is the continued and potentially escalating mistrust of parties from some members of the public,” the consultants wrote.
The consultants recommended more public workshops to discuss the problems.
Nicholas schools Superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick did not respond to an email request for an interview. State Superintendent Steve Paine was unavailable for an interview, said Department of Education spokeswoman Kristin Anderson.
The flood recovery money available from the federal government, known as “428” funds, could be used to consolidate the county’s flood-affected schools with other schools in the way the Nicholas board has favored: all at Glade Creek Business Park, near Summersville.
The Nicholas school board had planned to use FEMA recovery funding to build that consolidated campus. That money could instead rebuild the three school buildings that have been closed since the flood.
The state school board rejected the consolidation plan, and a ruling by the West Virginia Supreme Court held that the state board has the right to make such a decision.