The West Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that the state Board of Education had the right to reject the Nicholas County Board of Education’s plan to consolidate schools in Richwood, Summersville and Craigsville into a single campus near Summersville.
“The West Virginia Board of Education is entitled to utilize its discretion in approving or rejecting an amendment to a Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan submitted pursuant to West Virginia Code of State Regulations 126-176-1 et seq. in aid of school closure or consolidation,” the Supreme Court wrote in a unanimous decision released Tuesday, though Chief Justice Allen Loughry also wrote a concurring opinion.
“Mere procedural compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements does not entitle a county board of education to approval of its proposed plan,” says the court’s opinion, written by Justice Margaret Workman. “We further find that the reasons formally adopted by the WVBOE for rejection of the plan were neither arbitrary nor capricious.”
The Nicholas school board planned to use Federal Emergency Management Agency recovery funding from the June 2016 flood, which damaged Richwood Middle, Richwood High and Summersville Middle, to build the consolidated campus.
That money could instead rebuild those three schools, whose former buildings have been closed since the flood.
The proposed consolidated campus would’ve combined those three schools with Nicholas County High and the county’s vocational education center, neither of which was closed because of the flood.
The state school board initially denied the county board’s plan on June 13 and, on June 27, the Nicholas board filed a lawsuit against the state board and state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine, alleging that the denial was arbitrary.
On Aug. 18, Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Duke Bloom ruled in the Nicholas board’s favor. The state board and Paine appealed to the Supreme Court, which stayed Bloom’s order pending its own ruling on the case.
The high court, after hearing oral arguments last week from the state board and Nicholas board attorneys, reversed Bloom’s ruling, effectively upholding the state board’s denial of the consolidation plan.
On Sept. 8, according to a FEMA spokesman, Gov. Jim Justice requested an extension of the Dec. 26 application deadline — a deadline already supposedly pushed back from June — for Nicholas to receive FEMA “428” funds for school rebuilding plans.
Those plans could include the county board’s plan or consolidating schools in different configurations, such as by creating a consolidated Richwood Middle/Richwood High in the Richwood area.
Among the arguments in the case, the state board alleged that the Nicholas board didn’t give “serious, formal consideration to another plan,” while the Nicholas board alleged the state board rejected the consolidation plan for the ulterior motive of fulfilling Justice’s wish to stop schools from leaving Richwood.
Much of the argument involved a debate over where the state board’s power over education ends in comparison to the state Legislature’s power, and whether the state board acted in accordance with, or out of line with, its own written policies — and whether that matters considering the power the state Constitution grants to the state board.
Nicholas board member A.J. Rogers, when asked Tuesday what the Nicholas school system will do now, said “I’m really not sure. We’ve talked about a few things. Really, I guess we’ll just have to wait to be told what to do. That’s the way it looks.”
Rogers said he doesn’t know whether the ruling will mean the school system must rebuild Richwood Middle or Richwood High, or build a consolidated school in the Richwood area. Richwood residents have incessantly opposed the Nicholas board’s plan.
State board Vice President Dave Perry said in the state board’s June 13 motion to deny the Nicholas board’s consolidation plan that, “I believe sufficient alternatives and possibilities have not been explored to be assured this plan is in the best interest of the students of Nicholas County, and specifically of those in the current Richwood Middle and Richwood High School areas.”
“We all know what the governor wants,” Rogers said. Justice said during his State of the State address that “I hope and pray that we end up with a school in Richwood.”
“Whether our local board feels it’s right or wrong it looks like we could be forced into it,” Rogers said. “But I don’t know, we haven’t had a meeting, we’ve just been moving forward with what we thought was right and now we’re back to square one and we have a meeting Monday night and I’m sure that will be on our agenda as to what we need to do.”
Perry said Tuesday that, personally, he won’t support any alternative plan that doesn’t involve building a school in Richwood city limits or adjoining them, and won’t accept just putting a school in Craigsville, about 20 minutes away.
“I would believe at this point that we would agree to meet with the Nicholas County Board of Education and mediate a resolution to the situation, that’s what I would hope would happen,” Perry said. “There are some alternatives there as far as two schools or prek-12 or so forth, and the locations would have to be determined.”
“I’m just glad that the Supreme Court got it, in my opinion, got it right … in a timely manner as well,” Perry said.
A video posted Tuesday on the “I am Richwood” Facebook page, which has been a forum for those who oppose the schools moving out of Richwood, showed Richwood High band director Greg James speaking to students. The Lumberjack Express band has been a symbol of the community since the flood.
“You all know that the Supreme Court has said that good does prevail over evil, alright?” James said. “And Richwood High School is going to be here. We’re not going anywhere.”
The students cheered, and then played a fight song, with drum beats between shouts of “RI!” “CH!” “WO!” “OD!”