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Mingo County Commission caught in Christian school controversy

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WILLIAMSON — One Mingo County commissioner is at odds with his counterparts over the commission’s relationship with Ambassador Christian Academy, a private Christian school in Williamson.

For the past few months, Commissioner Thomas Taylor has repeatedly voted against covering utility bills for county-owned facilities he alleges are primarily used by Ambassador.

Ambassador leases its building — the former Williamson Middle School — from the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, a subset of the county commission, for $1 annually.

While it pays for its own utilities in the building, the school regularly uses the gym and cafeteria of the neighboring high school, for which the county pays utilities costs.

“I’m not against the school in any way. I even gave them a donation last year. It’s just not right to use county funds to pay for a private school,” Taylor said. “The way it is set up — California to West Virginia — is that we have a public education system. That is where [the county’s] dollars should go; not to private operations only serving a small portion of our community.”

Taylor is alone in his stance against the other two commissioners, who both have history with and ties to the school.

Commissioner Greg “Hootie” Smith was a key actor in procuring the lease between the county and Ambassador. He was commission president in 2014, when the county released the middle school building to the redevelopment authority so it could “lease the property to Ambassador Christian Academy for education purposes,” according to the surrender of property documents.

Smith also said he was one of the commissioners — in addition to Mike Carter, who is now an administrator at Ambassador — who approached Williamson Christian School and Regional Christian School in 2014, proposing a consolidation to form Ambassador and a move into the Williamson School Complex, which had stood vacant since public school consolidations in 2011.

Diann Hannah, the current commission president, has grandchildren who attend Ambassador, and her son-in-law is athletic director and a bus driver at the school, according to the Williamson Daily News. She does not, however, see this as a conflict of interest, the newspaper reported Jan. 10.

“I guarantee I am one of the top tax payers, but I’m not complaining that I have to fund a public school,” Hannah told the Daily News. “I don’t have any kids in a public school.”

Hannah did not respond to requests for comment.

Taylor’s complaints came to a head with Smith and Hannah at recent meetings, according to the Daily News. He has called on commissioners to completely sever ties with Ambassador and put both the middle school and high school buildings up for sale.

“Everything we spend on should be an investment back into the community,” Taylor said. “For the past few years, serious money has gone to keeping up [Ambassador], and what is the public getting out of that?”

Per its lease, charges covered by the county in the school’s first three years were meant as “an incentive to promote viability” of Ambassador as a “new business.”

Until August 2016, the county covered all utility payments for Ambassador at the middle school building, with the school paying an incremental utility allowance each year to the redevelopment authority. This money was put into escrow and used for later utility payments, according to Leasha Johnson, executive director of the authority.

‘It seems like a kind

of sweetheart deal’

Taylor isn’t the only one voicing concerns about Ambassador’s relationship with the county.

At least four Mingo County residents have filed complaints with a national organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

On Jan. 5, FFRF, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit dedicated to affirming the separation of church and state, sent a letter addressed to Hannah and the commission calling for it to stop renting the former middle school building to Ambassador for less than fair market value and to halt any payments toward Ambassador’s operations, including utilities.

The letter cited similar, precedent-setting court cases, and it alleged that through its funding, the county commission was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which generally prohibits governmental support or endorsement of religion.

“[Four complaints] is a lot for us — it seems like more people are starting to realize what is going on,” said Christopher Line, a Patrick O’Reiley legal fellow at FFRF who wrote the letter. “It seems like a kind of sweetheart deal — the county is willing to accept less than their fair share of money for [Ambassador] to be operating out of these facilities.”

Line said the organization’s complaint is two-fold. He noted the low annual rent, saying it is unconstitutional for the county to be renting space to, and therefore supporting, a religiously affiliated organization for less than fair market value. He also noted the county’s history of taking on utility bills for the school.

“In this, we’re looking at everything, including previous payments. Potentially, some of those funds need to be paid back,” he said.

Taylor said he was not one of the residents who complained to FFRF.

“In my opinion, as a commission, we need to handle this situation ourselves,” Taylor said.

Smith said he believes FFRF is acting on misinformation, without knowledge of the history or circumstances.

“It’s a political issue,” Smith said. “When it comes down to it, that’s all this is.”

Religion and politics aren’t the main drivers for Taylor, he said, adding he would be against any private school taking county money, and it’s more about reckless, wasteful spending in a county he considers to be on the verge of a serious economic disaster.

“Throughout the time we’ve given money to this school, we’ve had cutbacks, layoffs, there are less sheriff’s deputies driving the streets now ... I’m tired of not having anything in Southern West Virginia,” Taylor said. “In Mingo County, we’re about the last of the last, and I’m tired of the wasteful spending. If I can’t stop it, then I don’t need to be there.”

‘It wasn’t like 10 other

companies were knocking’

In September 2013, the Mingo County Board of Education sold the complex to the county through the redevelopment authority for $300,000, according to the lease agreement.

“This was a huge liability in the first place — purchasing the complex,” Taylor said. “The cost of operating it is astronomical. [The county] paid [the Board of Education] to take on their liability. That’s just ridiculous.”

The school complex comprises several buildings, including the former Williamson High School, Williamson Middle School, an athletic complex and the Coalfield Community Action Partnership building, which houses several local nonprofits.

Smith said, initially, the complex was going to be transformed into a judicial annex building, where court offices would relocate.

When this didn’t work out, the commission, led by Smith as president, approached the private schools to ask them about consolidating.

Smith said it was a problem for the city to have the buildings standing vacant, as they attracted squatters and vandalism. He said security guards employed by the county would often have to be paid overtime for patrolling the school complex in an attempt to deter crime.

There was no formal bidding process or anything similar to give other companies or organizations a chance to lease the buildings, but Smith said it was “public knowledge the county had the properties.” Williamson Christian School had approached the commission earlier in the year, requesting help with funding and upkeep of its facility.

“It wasn’t like 10 other companies were knocking on our door saying, ‘We’d like to come here,’” Smith said. “We’re continuously trying to recruit other businesses.”

Ambassador first entered into a lease with the redevelopment authority Aug. 1, 2014, about a month after the commission released its hold on the middle school back to the authority.

The lease designated a $1 annual rent and for the county to pay all utilities, with Ambassador paying $300 per month as a “utilities allowance.”

Repairs and installations to bring the building up to fire code and utilities for the first year of Ambassador’s lease cost more than $113,000, according to invoices. On April 29, 2015, Ambassador wrote a check to the authority for $3,600, which was put into escrow.

For the 2015 school year, Ambassador’s second year at the complex, the utility bill totaled more than $43,000.

An amendment to the lease that year upped the utility charge from $300 monthly to $1,000, a practice that continued into the school’s third year at the complex. The resulting $24,000 was put into escrow by the authority and was used — along with the past payment of $3,600 — to cover utilities until July 26, 2017, when an amendment to the lease transferred all utility responsibilities to Ambassador.

‘He told us no, said there was no time for us’

Regarding the high school portion of the complex, Taylor said his problem hinges on paying for utilities when Ambassador is the primary occupant for the facilities.

Both Smith and Taylor said Ambassador’s sports teams practice at the high school, and students eat lunch in the cafeteria most days, if not every day.

Taylor said he has proposed having Ambassador take over these payments as well, but Smith said he does not see that becoming a reality.

“That’s not in their lease — paying for the high school,” Smith said. “Would you pay for something in your home that’s not in your lease?”

In addition to being unfair, Smith said it is also just not possible to stop the utility payments.

“Even if [Ambassador] was not using the cafeteria and gym, the county would have to pay the utilities for insurance purposes, since we own the property,” Smith said. “And, anyway, [the cafeteria and gym] are still completely open to the public and anyone who wants to use them.”

Smith conceded there has been a decrease in people interested in using the facilities in the last couple of years, but he could not say exactly how many have rented them.

In 2014, under Smith, the county commission passed a motion to charge groups or sports teams interested in renting the buildings for events or practices, according to meeting minutes.

Then-County Commissioner John Mark Hubbard stated at the same meeting that funds from rentals were to be allocated to nonprofits in Mingo, with House of Hope food pantry and the Tug Valley Recovery Shelter mentioned by name.

Kim Ryan, executive director of the Tug Valley Recovery Shelter, said in an email she was unaware of this being decided in 2014, “or at any time for that matter,” and that her shelter has not received any money from the county commission in the last few years.

Taylor said in his year on the commission, he’s never heard of anyone other than Ambassador using the gym. He was also unsure of the procedure for renting the facilities.

“I wouldn’t quite call [the gym and cafeteria] open to the public,” Taylor said.

In past years, Buddy League — a community youth basketball league — regularly practiced in the gym, said Brandon Barker, president of the Hatfield and McCoy Youth Basketball League and former board member of the Buddy League before its end in 2017.

Barker said he contacted Jody Woolum, Ambassador’s athletic director, in November about scheduling time for his teams at the high school gym, but he was denied.

“He told us no, said there was no time for us. He said his teams had the gym booked up,” Barker said. “I thought that [the gym was for public use], but, yeah, I’m not so sure.”

Barker said he never contacted Woolum about using the facilities again after that conversation.

Smith said the county is also on the hook for utilities in the building since the Mingo County Circuit Court uses some of the available space for storage.

Taylor, though, was unimpressed by this argument.

“Storage doesn’t need power or water. I can’t see a piece of paper flushing a commode,” Taylor said. “The heat set at 50 degrees compared to set at 80 degrees is a big difference.”

Lonnie Hannah, Mingo County Circuit Clerk, said there are paper archives and files from the ’70s and ’80s sitting in two rooms of the high school. Moving them, he said, would not be a problem, as long as the county can find somewhere dry, secure and accessible for them to be stowed.

“That’s why they can’t be in [the county courthouse’s] basement,” he said. “There was flooding in there a while ago that destroyed records. We can’t have that happen again.”

Ultimately, he said, it’s up to the county commission.

‘We’re looking at our options’

FFRF requested a response from the county commission, and Smith and Taylor said they are unsure of what their course of action would be.

Diann Hannah told the Daily News she did not plan to respond since the redevelopment authority manages the lease.

Smith said he would like to respond to clarify the circumstances.

Line and the FFRF are researching the claims in the complaints but are waiting on any further action, legal or otherwise, until they hear from the county commission or until it becomes clear they won’t.

“We don’t have anything planned right now, but we’re looking at our options,” Line said. “The important thing is to consider the intent and fairness of their current practices. It really depends on why they are doing this. In this case, there are definitely angles that are problematic.”

Representatives from Ambassador did not respond to requests for comment.

Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

She can be reached at

caity.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow

@CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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