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Nicholas County ‘a house divided’ over possible school consolidation

NICHOLAS COUNTY — There are about 600 seats in the audience section of the Nicholas County High auditorium, but only about 40 were full last week for that school’s closure hearing.

The onstage phalanx of the county’s school board members and public school system central office employees was half the size of the audience.

Just five audience members spoke in that dimly lit room with hundreds of empty blue and purple chairs facing the stage where the system leaders sat in front of the blue stage curtain and behind the blue-tablecloth draped tables displaying the school’s grizzly bear mascot.

“I graduated from Nicholas County High School — my picture as the homecoming queen is in the cabinet,” said Jennifer Foreman, a 1989 graduate, in the three minutes the board alloted to all who wanted to speak.

“I love Nicholas County High School,” the Summersville resident continued. “I’ve been loyal. I came back here to teach. I will miss this school tremendously.

“But I’m begging you tonight to close Nicholas County High School and to consolidate, because my children and the children of my children deserve a better place to go to school — they deserve everything we have to offer them, and this is our chance. Please don’t pass it up.”

“I believe if we do not do it now, in five or 10 years we will have to do it, and I believe every taxpayer will take the brunt of that then,” said Kevin Spinks, a consolidation supporter and Persinger resident who has an eighth-grader at Summersville Middle. “Let’s do this, let’s come together as a county now.”

He continued, “You’re doing what should have been done, I believe, two or three years ago, or even more.”

Wesley Johnson, a Poe resident and consolidation supporter, said he’s seen classes dropped due to lack of funding. The two other speakers also favored schools Superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick’s proposed consolidation, and the hearing was over in about 20 minutes.

Logan Cole, a senior at the high school who will be studying mechanical engineering at Fairmont State University, said after school last week consolidation should happen because enrollment has been dropping for years.

“I know it’ll only be a matter of time because for years it’s just been a lot of small talk about it, but I’m glad it’s finally happening,” Cole said. He said he believes it will help everyone get the same curricular opportunities.

Cole said there’s been a lot of arguing about consolidation since the late-June flood that closed some Nicholas schools, but he has friends at Richwood High who are both for and against the consolidation.

On Friday night, about a 40-minute drive 25 miles southeast of Nicholas County High, about 250 people attended the Richwood High closure hearing.

About 60 speakers signed up to talk — mostly adults with a few students mixed in. The hearing lasted more than three-and-a-half hours.

Also attending were at least 10 uniformed police officers from at least three separate agencies, including state troopers who waved metal detector wands over individuals as they entered the cafeteria. Burge-Tetrick said she had received threats.

Speakers at the hearing, almost without exception, denounced the proposed consolidation. The hearing included multiple incidents of:

n criticisms of Burge-Tetrick’s recently approved four-year contract extension with pay raises, which will increase her annual salary from $108,000 currently to $124,000 four years from now — something she told the crowd is what “typically boards pay superintendents that they would like to keep”;

n allegations Burge-Tetrick’s executive secretary, Kim Belletto, called consolidation opponents multigenerational welfare recipients, something Belletto — who held out the lime green “1 min” notification card Friday for speakers running out of time — neither confirmed nor denied;

n displeased murmuring in the audience about the superintendent’s answers to speakers’ questions and shouted audience interjections amid her responses;

n complaints about board members deferring all questions to Burge-Tetrick and her staff instead of answering themselves;

n personal pleas to board member Fred Amick, who was Richwood Middle’s principal for nearly three decades;

n concerns about bus incidents;

n allegations that the school system’s calculations of student transportation times regarding the proposed consolidation were incorrect;

n arguments smaller schools are better for students;

n concerns that Richwood and Summersville students will fight if consolidated;

n statements that, if schools aren’t rebuilt in the Richwood area, the system won’t be able to persuade enough voters to support future school levies that maintain higher property taxes to support the system;

n promises people will send their children to other counties’ schools if Richwood schools aren’t rebuilt in the Richwood area;

n and complaints that, while Richwood lost schools in the flood, the superintendent’s plan would put Federal Emergency Management Agency flood relief money toward a consolidated campus outside of Richwood that would also house students from the flood-spared Nicholas County High.

These have been the scenes at two of the five closure hearings for the five schools Burge-Tetrick has suggested the board consolidate into a single campus consisting of two schools at the Glade Creek Business Park, near Nicholas County High. The buildings for three of the five schools proposed for closure — Richwood High, Richwood Middle and Summersville Middle — already closed following the flood; Nicholas County High and the county’s vocational education center are the ones still operating out of pre-flood buildings.

“Nicholas County High School will be repurposed for another school,” the system’s consolidation documents state, without specifying which school. The documents also say the vocational center “will be repurposed for county use.”

The last of the closure hearings is for and at the vocational center, called the Nicholas County Career/Technical Center. The hearing starts at 6 p.m. today at 215 Milam Addition Road, Craigsville, 26205, and possible “board action on school closures and consolidations” is also listed on that meeting’s agenda.

The Richwood High School Alumni Association and three people affiliated with the Richwood schools have filed a lawsuit against Burge-Tetrick and the board members alleging they violated open meetings laws through private discussions concerning consolidation, and the plaintiffs have requested a preliminary injunction halting the steps toward consolidation and the destruction of the pre-flood Richwood school buildings. The superintendent denied the suit’s allegations Friday.

The school system’s proposal documents estimate the consolidated campus will cost $130 million but will save the system 25 percent on utilities.

The documents also estimate about half a million dollars in annual savings on salary costs through the elimination of positions for about 14 service personnel, a category that includes cooks and custodians, and one professional personnel position. Professional personnel include teachers and principals.

Richwood High, at 390 students this school year, has seen its enrollment drop from 421 around the start of this decade. Richwood Middle, now at 276 kids, has had pretty level enrollment over that time. The proposed consolidation documents say most of the students at those schools come from outside the city and “live toward the proposed new location.”

Nicholas County High’s enrollment has dropped from 806 to 693 over that time frame, while Summersville Middle’s has declined from about 600 to 513.

The closure hearing for Richwood High wasn’t in its pre-flood building, which was built in 1961, but in Cherry River Elementary, which is now holding Richwood Middle’s students.

Richwood High students now occupy the building of the previously consolidated Beaver Elementary, which is outside of Richwood. Principal Scott Williams said students are also using three portable classrooms, each about the size of a double-wide trailer, located outside of the Beaver building.

Much of the outside of the school is a mess of mud and tread tracks amid installation of the rest of the portables, which Williams said students are tentatively to begin occupying in April.

Inside the front entrance to the school, written on a small whiteboard on a stand, is an Abraham Lincoln quote: “A house divided against itself cannot stand!”

There was more exclamation Friday on a sign hanging from a wire above State Route 39, just before the turn onto the bridge to cross the Cherry River and reach Cherry River Elementary, where cars filled parking spaces for the hearing.

“Richwood Forever! Consolidate Never!” the sign said.

The land outside nearby Cherry River Elementary was also torn up and dotted with construction materials amid installation of portables to accommodate the Richwood Middle students — though the adjacent, abandoned and deteriorating Watergate Hotel, with “No trespassing” and “Stay out” painted on it, was an added blemish.

“If you consolidate, I can almost guarantee that there will be a bus from Greenbrier County picking up students in the Leivasy area,” longtime former school board president Lloyd Adkins told the board members. The line garnered applause, like so many other lines did Friday.

Carl O’Dell, who said he taught at Richwood Middle for 31 years, said “hundreds of people have come to Richwood to help, and it seems like you want to kick the city while it’s down by removing our schools.”

“Nicholas County High School wasn’t damaged,” O’Dell said. “So now you want to take funds that FEMA provided for Richwood schools and combine them with the Summersville Middle School funds to build a high school in Summersville. Do you have no moral compass about that?”

Ronnie Hamrick said board members told him they were having trouble sleeping over the upcoming decision.

“This is your conscience telling you to do the right thing,” Hamrick said. “I hope and pray that Jesus, who does the right thing without fail, will guide you and fill your heart with love, the same love that I have for my alma mater, Richwood High School, and the beautiful people of this community.”

“In the past five months, many friendships have been destroyed,” said Craig Nicholas, a 2014 summa cum laude graduate of Richwood High and current junior at West Virginia University. “I know families torn apart on this very issue. I believe this is because statements of those against consolidation fell upon deaf ears.”

Michael Helmick, a 1987 Richwood High graduate who now lives in Putnam County, said the Richwood community is on life support, and “you’re ready to rip the heart out of there and pull the plug on it.”

“I sleep about an hour a night because all I think about is the chance that they’re going to close this school and move it to Summersville,” Helmick said. “What gives Summersville the right for a new school when Richwood is a lot older and needs it?”

Azreah Groves, a freshmen at Richwood High, said the school’s band “is like my little big family,” and if you consolidate and remove the Nicholas County High-Richwood High rivalry, “you’ll take all the fun away.”

“When you take something from someone who’s been flooded, they call that looting,” said Greg James, Richwood High’s band director.

Bill Miller said his grandmother was in the first class of Richwood High.

“It’s hard to sleep at nights. This town means everything to me and the history of my family,” Miller said, his voice breaking with emotion as he spoke. “Of the family, almost 60 kids graduated from Richwood High School ... we had professors, we had doctors, we had nurses, we had it all, we had lumberman, like me, but we were proud, we were good people, hardworking people, just like everybody here. If we lose that school, we’re gonna lose our hearts because that’s our heart.”

He went on to say, “There were sharks in those floodwaters. There were sharks, and the sharks are you!”

Reach Ryan Quinn at

304-348-1254 or follow

@RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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Cawley Jr., George - 3 p.m., Gatens - Harding Funeral Home, Poca.

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Evenson, Warren - 2 p.m., Donel C. Kinnard State Veterans Cemetery, Dunbar.

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Williams, Scott - 11 a.m., Gatens - Harding Funeral Home, Poca.