RICHWOOD — Early last month, Nicholas County and state education leaders, who once fought each other in court over how fair Nicholas was being to its Richwood community, conveyed their post-mediation harmony and together expressed gratitude in garnering an expected $159.8 million in federal dollars to rebuild Nicholas’ flood-damaged schools.
The state Board of Education and Gov. Jim Justice, who appointed the majority of its members, had gotten the Nicholas Board of Education to abandon its plan to use over $100 million in expected recovery funds from the June 2016 flood to only rebuild near Summersville.
The state school board fulfilled Justice’s hope and prayer, as he put it in his first State of the State Address, “that we end up with a school in Richwood.” Nicholas schools Superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick said “once we got everything aired out in the mediation agreement everyone came together,” and she couldn’t say enough about other state agencies’ help.
But some vocal Richwood backers’ desires aren’t fulfilled, and the currently planned budget for the school they’re getting is about a fifth of the budget for the one still being planned to be built near Summersville, using flood recovery funds and on the same property the fully consolidated school was planned for.
Yes, the Nicholas school board now plans for a school — just one — in Richwood: Cherry River Elementary, the single Richwood school not demolished after the flood, is to be renovated and expanded to accommodate the Richwood middle and high school students whose schools were destroyed.
The current “conceptual budget” says only $30 million of the total $177.5 million in planned federal and state rebuilding dollars will go to the Richwood school, while $125.8 million is to go to the school near Summersville.
When asked why there’s a $21.7 million gap between the conceptual budget for both schools and the full $177.5 million in planned dollars, Burge-Tetrick at first mentioned various possible expenses not shown in the conceptual budget, including the possibility of having to install a septic system to serve the Richwood school.
But in a later interview, she said she learned from Charleston-based ZMM Architects & Engineers that the $21.7 million is actually going toward installing more vocational education programs than originally anticipated at the school near Summersville. So that school’s current budget is about $147.5 million.
As of last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the project still hadn’t been finally approved.
Burge-Tetrick said negotiations over the total $177.5 million “fixed estimate” amount are done, and she thinks the money only hasn’t been released because they’re still awaiting environmental studies of the two planned school sites. She estimated they’ll take about 6 months to come back.
She said “we’re not sure how much it’s going to cost” to have either site “build-ready,” despite the federal government not covering unexpected costs beyond the $177.5 million “fixed estimate.”
She said the planned school sizes are based on enrollment estimated through surveys that ZMM did. She said she didn’t handle the surveys “because I feel that if I did some folks in the Richwood area would say it was not a fair assessment.”
The Richwood school is currently projected to have 750 students in all grades, while Burge-Tetrick has said the projection for the Summersville-area school is about double that.
David Ferguson, an architect and principal at ZMM, said the estimate of future Richwood high schoolers was determined by the number of current students at Richwood Middle. He said the number of future middle schoolers was projected through counting current Cherry River Elementary students plus calling all rising fourth graders at two other elementaries, Gauley River and Panther Creek, that feed into the Richwood schools to see which school the students planned to attend in the future.
“Since there’s open borders it’s hard to tell how that’s going to work anyway,” Ferguson said.
The Nicholas board is eliminating the geographic distinctions for who attends which middle school or high school. Burge-Tetrick has said the county will provide any resident student transportation to go to either new school, plus will bus Richwood school students to the Summersville-area school if they wish to take vocational classes there.
She said the ZMM enrollment projections were done after students were made aware of this elimination of attendance zones.
She said more projections will be done in “phase 2” of construction, and if they show a population shift the Richwood school will grow at the expense of the Summersville-area school’s budget — but said the Richwood school won’t shrink even if those new surveys project even lower enrollment for Richwood.
Ferguson said that by the end of December, they’ll probably have a more solid floor plan “and then the budgets will be realinged.”
A town in decline?
Richwood, which the 2010 U.S. Census said had 2,051 residents before the flood, seems like a very small, interconnected community.
Around 1:30 p.m. last Tuesday in the Whistle Punk Taphouse & Grill sat former Richwood city councilman and local entrepreneur Chuck Toussieng. Later, Ellen Johnson, a Whistle Punk employee and daughter of former Nicholas judge and state Supreme Court administrator Gary Johnson, sat down at a table.
On the drive into the city, where two Confederate flags hung out from the front of houses on the descent into downtown, Main Street had multiple empty or darkened storefronts and an overall neglected look. There’s a fallout shelter sign on the Post Office building, and later in the afternoon, around 4 p.m., a man on horseback rode down Main Street.
But inside Whistle Punk, which opened in June, the design and menu rival hipster restaurants in larger cities. There’s a stage for bands, there’s the guided painting-while-drinking sessions seen elsewhere, and you can buy beers from Fayette and Greenbrier counties and Cherry River Roasting Company coffee from beans roasted in Toussieng’s Richwood Scientific building, just on the other side of a mural-decorated “sculpture garden” outdoor space.
Toussieng, as he spent time cleaning up from and planning lessons for a 4-H Lego robotics team, spoke of plans to use $300,000 in grant funding to establish local internet service provider and internet fiber infrastructure repair and installation companies or nonprofits. He also discussed a coming significant bike trail expansion and plans to rehabilitate a single building on Main Street to house hydroponic gardens, a 40-seat movie theater, retail space, technology space and four loft apartments “that you’d pay a couple million dollars for in New York.”
He also said he found a valuable letterpress behind a wall in his building, which used to print the News Leader and the internationally known West Virginia Hillbilly, and plans to incorporate that and its drawers of type into some kind of makerspace. All this planned for a city smacked by the 2016 flood.
“It’s upsetting the way they’re going to push everyone into the same area,” said Whistle Punk chef Julie Taylor, who’s also a substitute teacher’s aide, regarding the Richwood school plans.
“We still won,” said server Amy Hinkle, who has a daughter at Richwood High. “We’re still in Richwood.”
The split between the current budgets for the schools echoes a complaint Richwood supporters made against the Nicholas board’s scrapped full consolidation plan: Our community lost two schools [Richwood Middle and Richwood High], Summersville lost one [Summersville Middle], but the FEMA school rebuilding dollars are mostly going to pour into Summersville.
Burge-Tetrick said that because Richwood High once had over 1,000 students in the 1960s, Nicholas was eligible to receive rebuilding money for a school that size — even though the school now, operating in temporary quarters at the former Beaver Elementary outside the city, has fewer than 400 students. She said about two-thirds of the total federal dollars previously expected for Nicholas were due to the former Richwood schools’ worth as determined in this manner.
But she said Nicholas was able to persuade FEMA to pay $46 million to attach a vocational education center with 14 programs to the Summersville-area school, despite the county already having a vocational center in Craigsville that hasn’t closed and, now, is planned to. So now, about half the $159.8 million in federal dollars is from that plus the worth of the former Summersville Middle, while the other half is from the Richwood schools.
When asked why she didn’t also try to label the Richwood school a “comprehensive high school” like the other one and obtain a vocational education center for it, she said “with the projected enrollment there’s no way we can sustain six CTE [career technical education] programs there.”
The now-planned Summersville-area school is to be built at the Glade Creek Business Park and consolidate Summersville Middle, the vocational school and Nicholas County High, which also wasn’t razed after the flood. Its price tag is around the $130 million estimate [which excluded the cost of property and site preparation] that Burge-Tetrick had shared for the fully consolidated school, which would’ve also assimilated Richwood Middle and Richwood High.
This consolidated Summersville-area school would in turn free up the Nicholas County High building to become the new Summersville Elementary, allowing that elementary school’s building to close.
Sharon and Bill Glasscock own the Laurel Creek Hardwoods lumberyard and sawmill that’s separated by a parking lot and fence from the Richwood Middle portable classrooms now sitting on the Cherry River Elementary site. They said they believe the Nicholas board is purposefully building the Richwood school to fail.
Sharon Glasscock, who believes the $30 million budget could build a good school for Richwood if it were placed on the Collins site, said she believes the county school system’s intent is to still do the full consolidation into Glade Creek in the future.
Burge-Tetrick said “Richwood High School and Richwood Middle School will retain their names, mascots and traditions and it would require a closure hearing to make any of those changes and abandon the idea and that is absolutely not intended.”
The lopsided budget plans were revealed through documents Burge-Tetrick shared with the Gazette-Mail right after her board’s Sept. 4 vote to accept the $159.8 million in FEMA dollars. Stu Matthis — a North Carolina resident, Richwood High almunus, brother of Nicholas Chronicle columnist Susan Johnson and brother-in-law of former Nicholas Circuit judge Gary Johnson — said he first saw the figures in August in a response to an open records request.
The documents Burge-Tetrick provided show the Summersville-area school is planned to be a roughly 345,000-square-feet structure with an attached vocational center and “a new forward thinking modern look.”
The new plan for Richwood is to add 73,550 square feet onto the 35,400-square-feet elementary school so it can also fit the middle and high schoolers. Instead of a “modern look” the plan proposes a “’lodge” look with “brick, natural stone and timber” that reflects “the community’s heritage.”
Burge-Tetrick said the school system will transport students from the Richwood school to partnering businesses in the Richwood area for vocational education.
Sharon Glasscock noted the Collins site, part of another lumberyard, is actually in the midst of downtown Richwood, where students may be able to walk to the city library and more partnering businesses, while the Cherry River Elementary site isn’t near those businesses or the Richwood football field. Driving on a road around the Cherry River Elementary site, she had to pull over to let a timber delivery truck pass on the way to her lumberyard.
Mediation didn’t end fight
The Facebook page “I am Richwood,” a forum for consolidation opponents since 2016, still has posts objecting to what the Nicholas board is proposing.
The Richwood High School Alumni Association purchased a half-page advertisement in the Gazette-Mail last month complaining about the percentage of funds planned for the Richwood school and the rejection of the group’s preferred site. The ad said the Richwood schools “are not being replaced” and, instead, areas “are being cobbled onto a 40-year-old elementary school.”
Charleston-based attorney James Barber has written to School Building Authority board members “on behalf of concerned residents of Richwood” who support using the “Collins” site for the school, rather than adding on to the elementary school.
Sharon Glasscock declined to say what Barber’s mission is.
“I will say that we’re going to pursue every avenue we can to put back a school that these kids deserve,” she said.
Also in the post-mediation fray are rebuttals from the One Nicholas County Facebook page, which has served as a foil to the anti-consolidators, and defamation lawsuit threats from Burge-Tetrick against “I am Richwood” page administrators. She said there have been threatening posts and “we have two years’ worth of screenshots, I am fed up.”
“I want to have amazing facilities for all of our students,” she said, “and it’s unfortunate that some people continue to be unsatisfied but I clearly believe it’s the minority.”
Consolidation opponents had an ally in Justice, who publicized the Richwood supporters’ fight against consolidation.
They had an ally in the state school board, whose members heard and questioned the details of the Nicholas board’s full consolidation plan before shooting it down twice.
They had an ally in the state Supreme Court, whose members upheld the state board’s right to reject Nicholas’ earlier plan.
But the high court didn’t order what had to happen next.
Next, it turned out, was a largely behind-closed-doors mediation process, sponsored by the governor and funded by FEMA, that took place between state board and Nicholas board leaders and the state and Nicholas superintendents. It allowed residents to comment on plans, but during the mediation the publicly shared plans were broad, and the lopsided financial figures weren’t revealed.
The Nicholas board then approved a vague plan the day before the May 8 primary, then three Richwood-backed board candidates lost during that primary, two incumbents were re-elected and the state board signed off on that vague plan the next day.
“If it wasn’t the will of the people our folks wouldn’t have been re-elected,” Burge-Tetrick said.
County and state education officials said the plan didn’t need to go through school closure public hearings — a March 2017 one at Richwood High had attracted around 250 people — because despite Richwood Middle and Richwood High combining physically with Cherry River Elementary, and despite the others joining physically near Summersville, they would still be separate schools with separate principals.
State school board member Debra Sullivan had questioned the full consolidation plan before shooting it down last year, asking about cost per acre of the planned site and other particulars.
When Burge-Tetrick brought the vague new plan back before the state board on May 9, Sullivan said “There’s no information about square footage. How in the world can you budget to build a building when you don’t know what you’re looking at?”
Burge-Tetrick said she couldn’t provide all the details.
“So what you’re asking is that we have trust?” Sullivan asked.
“Yes,” Burge-Tetrick said.
Sullivan, and all her fellow board members, approved the new plan.
Claiming an exemption to state open meetings laws, the Nicholas board has discussed construction and planning behind closed doors with the architect, Burge-Tetrick said.
Sharon Glasscock said ZMM had three meetings with a committee of individuals from Richwood in July. She said the last “got pretty heated” when ZMM revealed the projected enrollment figures and a blueprint showing how the middle and high schools would be added on to the elementary.
“Those meetings were a waste of time … they held meetings to just hold meetings,” Glasscock said.
“A couple of them didn’t care for it,” Ferguson said of the committee’s reaction to the plan to add onto Cherry River Elementary. “There were a couple of them that were open to the idea, and same thing with the numbers, some of them agreed with the lower number and some of them wanted a much higher enrollment number.”
Glasscock said she doesn’t think the governor or state school board members are aware of what’s happening.
“If they follow through with this, I think they’re just as guilty as the state Supreme Court justices in wasting money,” she said.
State board President Dave Perry said he’s happy with the county’s plan for the Richwood school and the state board is “out of it, fundamentally.”
“It’s more than what any of us anticipated,” Perry said of the Richwood school. “And I think you have to be keenly aware of the populations that both schools will serve. … People need to give it a chance.”