The West Virginia Board of Education approved a consolidation plan for Fayette County public schools Wednesday, almost exactly a year after the board approved a different plan that the state School Building Authority decided not to fund.
Board members voted 7-1 for the new plan, which has the backing of the SBA’s staff. Tom Campbell, of Greenbrier County, was the only board member to vote no. Gayle Manchin, who has asked Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to find a replacement for her since her term expired in November, was the only board member absent.
The new plan would drop the number of Fayette public schools from 18 to 11, change grade configurations and preserve only two existing high schools, Oak Hill and Midland Trail, although Midland Trail would become a sixth- through 12th-grade school.
Wednesday’s vote clears the way for state schools Superintendent Michael Martirano to ask the SBA board for money to start carrying out the plan, first to build a new Collins Middle and a new pre-kindergarten through second-grade school in the Oak Hill area.
Those two projects are expected to require $22.6 million in SBA funds and $17 million provided by Fayette’s school system, which has been controlled by the state school board since 2010.
The vote came after about 20 audience members argued for and against the plan. Several speakers, including Smithers Mayor Thomas Skaggs, objected to the plan to close Valley High School, in Smithers.
Fayette County Chamber of Commerce President Sharon Cruikshank said her organization supports the plan.
County Commission President Matt Wender, who is one of the plaintiffs suing the SBA and the state school board over their alleged failure to fulfill their duties to fix Fayette’s school building and academic issues, told the state school board Wednesday that he also supports the consolidation plan, despite his previous criticism of it as “top down.”
However, he then said the plan should be a “living document that changes with circumstances as they may dictate,” and said some parts of the plan might need “a bit more time to be fully vetted,” suggesting, particularly, a closer look at the intent to close Meadow Bridge and Valley high schools.
Campbell said he was concerned about a possible drop in extracurricular activity participation and other issues that might result from consolidation, saying it would harm rural communities.
“I think, for West Virginia to ignore that tremendous strength in our people and to base school decisions solely upon data and curriculum, I think, is a mistake,” Campbell said.
Several of those in favor of the plan argued that its development was data-driven. The plan’s development included input on curriculum wishes and other wants from a committee with three representatives from each Fayette public school — the principal, a member of the school’s community and the chairperson or a representative of its Local School Improvement Council — that was supposed to gather input from even more Fayette residents.
The SBA staff running the meetings, though, never asked the committee about which schools should be consolidated.
The SBA board is expected to vote on funding requests from Fayette and other school systems in December. Authority members don’t have to follow staff recommendations, but they will at least hear support for the plan from SBA staff, instead of the concerns those employees cited about last year’s plan.
SBA funding is limited each year and is awarded on a competitive basis. Scott Raines, the SBA’s director of school planning and construction, said he doesn’t know what funding requests other school systems will submit, but he doesn’t foresee the staff ranking any other project above Fayette’s.
Last September, the state school board voted to approve a plan to erect a roughly $57 million building to consolidate four Fayette County high schools, meaning Valley High would have been the county’s only current public high school left operating. Collins Middle students, who are currently in portable classrooms in Oak Hill, instead of in their run-down school, would have moved into the vacated Oak Hill High building.
In December, the SBA board, which distributes money for school construction and renovation projects to public school systems around West Virginia, refused to provide funds to build the consolidated high school.
In the wake of the board vote, the SBA staff developed a new plan, in conjunction with staff from the state-controlled school system and input they said they received from the committee. The new plan would turn the Valley High building into a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school. Some of Valley High’s current students would be sent to Kanawha County’s Riverside High School, while others would attend the other Fayette high schools.
The new consolidation plan, just like the old one, includes closing Meadow Bridge High, but it would use the 1977 and 1987 additions to the school to build a new pre-K- to eighth-grade school for the community.
SBA officials have argued that the plan is the best way to address Fayette’s facilities problems, considering the county’s limited funds.
Campbell and fellow board member Bill White, both of whom also have seats on the SBA’s board, opposed last year’s consolidation plan, and moved specifically to remove Meadow Bridge High’s closure from the plan.
“I followed it from the beginning to the end,” White said when asked Wednesday why he now supports the new plan. “I talked to and listened to ... all of the attendance groups, every school.
“This has been going on too long; it’s time for us to move forward.”
He said he supports closing Meadow Bridge and Valley high schools at this time, citing financial constraints and the fact that Meadow Bridge is still planned to maintain a pre-K- through eighth-grade school.
Like board Vice President Lloyd Jackson, though, he suggested that the county could, perhaps, take a different route with its facilities, if residents there vote for higher property taxes in a special bond election. A bond election failed in June of last year. It would be up to the state school board to decide if Fayette would be allowed to host another bond election.