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Nicholas consolidation fight could end swiftly, without much public review

Following a mediation process with the state conducted largely behind closed doors, the Nicholas County Board of Education’s new school rebuilding/consolidation plan could receive state approvals this week after little time for the public, and the policymakers themselves, to review it.

The Nicholas school board passed the plan Monday night, at the meeting where the plan was first fully revealed. Residents who hadn’t voted early headed to polls for the primary election Tuesday to determine who will hold three seats on the board.

Incumbents Fred Amick (3,459) and Phil Berry (3,521) won re-election, and Libby Coffman (3,655) won the third up for grabs seat. “The three Rs” candidates — Rick Green, Roy Moose and Stacy Raffo — who were backed by vocal opponents of the previous plan to consolidate Richwood schools to near Summersville, lost, with Moose coming closest to victory at 3,042 votes.

The consolidation plan has broadly the same school setup as the Nicholas board’s previously rejected plan, but with Richwood Middle and Richwood High rebuilt onto Cherry River Elementary in Richwood instead of consolidated onto the Glade Creek Business Park near Summersville.

The plan could receive state Board of Education approval at the board’s Wednesday meeting, starting at 10 a.m. in Room 353 of Building 6 of the Capitol Complex in Charleston.

“It’s been rushed,” Nicholas schools Superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick told her board Monday night, after handing out copies of a PowerPoint presentation. “We ended the mediation on the 30th [of April],” she said, “and it takes some time to develop the recommendation, collect the supporting documents.”

Burge-Tetrick said the plan involves building “onto Cherry River Elementary the academic classrooms and all of the necessaries, the band room, the auditorium, gymnasium, cafeteria, those things actually being built onto the existing Cherry River Elementary site to make it a full complex.” But she said Richwood’s three schools would continue to operate independently and students wouldn’t “co-mingle.”

She also said she doesn’t have the plan “completely developed at this point,” to allow families and students to attend the school they wish, and noted school size must “meet the student needs.” She said she’s also still working on transportation plans.

Burge-Tetrick said the “mediation update stated — and on all of our agendas, it stated — at the conclusion of the mediation process and prior to any vote of the Nicholas County Board of Education, a full discussion would be held in public session.”

The Nicholas board isn’t planning to hold school closure/consolidation public hearings.

The mediation team was composed of the state and Nicholas schools superintendents and the president and one other board member each from the Nicholas and state school boards.

The new plan documents — finally provided to the Gazette-Mail minutes before the 7 p.m. scheduled start of Monday’s meeting — say the the team had “two plus hours of meetings on five separate occasions.”

Burge-Tetrick, state Department of Education Communications Director Kristin Anderson and state Superintendent Steve Paine all indicated that the mediation team didn’t come to an agreement on things like which schools would close or where some schools would be located.

When they upheld the state board’s summer 2017 denial of the Nicholas board’s last consolidation plan, state Supreme Court justices explained how the plan review process is supposed to work.

“Critically, after the vote and prior to implementation of any consolidation, section 2.6 (of state board Policy 6204) states that ‘the county must file a request for an amendment of its CEFP with the WVBE for approval,’” now-Chief Justice Margaret Workman wrote in the court’s unanimous October ruling. The state board’s full name is variously abbreviated as WVBE and WVBOE.

“The request must ‘contain justification for the proposed consolidation’ which ‘must be supported by supplemental data and information pertinent,’” to several subjects, she wrote, and continued on to say, “The entire process effectively requires the WVBOE to engage in a holistic effort to subjectively assess whether the information collected pursuant to the statute and Policy 6204 actually justifies consolidation or closure. The vast amount of ‘supporting data’ required under Policy 6204 is not self-justifying; rather, it begs for analysis.”

Workman quoted a 1992 case as saying “approving a plan of closure or consolidation is not something that can be accomplished overnight, but is a protracted ordeal so as to ensure a more contemplative analysis before such a major decision is made.”

Burge-Tetrick said she sent the general counsel for the education department, which is under the state board, her proposed new school rebuilding plan at 4:17 p.m. Monday, and sent it to Nicholas board members a minute later.

On Monday, the Nicholas board spent a total of about an hour and a half on the issue.

The high court noted that the state board didn’t seem to have a high opinion of the way Nicholas ran its past public hearings on the previous consolidation plan. Workman wrote that “multiple members of the WVBOE expressed concern that the public hearings conducted were perfunctory.”

Workman also referenced this quote from state board Vice President Dave Perry, which was part of the state board’s July 10 motion that rejected (for the second time) the Nicholas board’s plan:

“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 said in that successful motion.

Last month, the mediation team held a public meeting that solicited input from county residents — but on an update from the team that didn’t say which schools would be closed or specify whether any vocational education would be offered at the Richwood schools.

Stacie Smith, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based senior mediator with the Consensus Building Institute, a nonprofit hired by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to facilitate the meeting, did provide a half-hour-long presentation at the meeting. But she said “I know you have questions, unfortunately we’re not going to answer those for you tonight.”

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

Funerals for Sunday, June 16, 2019

Brown, Marjorie - 2 p.m., Dunbar First Baptist Church, Dunbar.

Cunningham, Lawrence - 3 p.m., Foglesong Funeral Home, Mason.

Fought, Opal - 2 p.m., Bartlett-Nichols Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Galford, Mable - 2 p.m., VanReenen Funeral Home, Marlinton.

Kyer, David - 2 p.m., Fleming Cemetery, Cottle.

Shull, Jessie - 2 p.m., Wilcoxen Funeral Home, Point Pleasant.

Thomas, James - 1 p.m., 2101 Kaye-Neva Lane, Sissonville.