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Gov. Justice addresses crowd of small school supporters

By Andrea Lannom

The Register-Herald

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Led by Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber, people gathered in the Capitol rotunda Friday, chanting “Save Our Schools” before Gov. Jim Justice arrived to speak about small schools in the state.

Some residents from Fayette and Nicholas counties held up signs proclaiming “Small Schools Matter,” and “Saving Our School = Saving Our Community + Our State.”

Richwood residents are fighting a consolidation plan that would send students from their flood-destroyed high and middle schools to a large consolidated campus in Summersville.

Justice expressed sympathy saying he believes schools need to be in local communities, but told attendees they also need to make their voices heard to the Legislature and state Board of Education.

“You know where I stand and I absolutely believe beyond a doubt that when you take a school out of a community, it kills the community,” Justice said.

“All I can do is voice my opinion,” Justice later said. “I’m hamstrung. But at the same time, everyone knows where I stand.”

Small school supporters in Fayette County oppose closing outlying high schools in Smithers and Meadow Bridge. Students in those areas will be given the option of attending nearby schools in neighboring counties or longer bus rides to attend in Fayette.

“I wish I would have been around before we got in this food fight in Fayette County because it’s truly turned into a fight that hurts a lot of people,” Justice said.

One of the residents talked about sending her kids to Riverside High School in Kanawha County, saying the children want to stay in Fayette. Another resident is concerned that her child would be on the road an hour and a half every day to go to school.

Justice said that this was a decision for the state Board of Education President Tom Campbell, who also was in attendance.

“We can’t put our kids on buses and send them up-teen miles where they can’t participate in band or athletics,” he said. “We are going back to the same old same old. We are better than that.

“These are decisions that have to be made by the people above us — our legislators,” Justice said. “They have to make this decision. I have said we can do one of two things. We can continue to try to constrict, which is what consolidation does.

“There are different factions. There is a faction believing we get to the situation where everything is going to Oak Hill. I wish we would have kept Meadow Bridge. I will ask Tom to explore every avenue and use wisdom to come to a decision on everything he can do.”

Justice talked about his budget plan, saying there are four legs to the stool to get out of the budget crisis. One of the legs, he said is for people making more than $200,000 a year to pay $500 to $1,000 extra a year.

The other leg, he said he said is cutting government waste, but not “cutting into the bone.” The third, he said is putting a tax on businesses. The last, he said is consumers paying a penny on every $4 they spend.

“The people upstairs are going to say, no, no,” Justice said referring to legislators. “These people believe to be on a mission from God and believe their mission is to cut and believe their mission is no new taxes in any way. When there’s a cut, there’s a name to it. It’s not just a cut. It’s a person and a family.”

Baber said he was encouraged by Justice’s words.

“The man gets it,” he said. “He knows all about the importance of the communities and the investments that schools give us and it’s great he came out and spent time with us. Thank God for Justice.”

Baber expressed frustration over the consolidation in Richwood, saying this wasn’t in the 10-year plan and the high school was originally supposed to get $1 million for windows. He said the flood relief efforts in the town have been going well with 30 tiny homes recently built.

“But I know people in Richwood whose homes were completely destroyed who are more upset about the consolidation than they are about losing their homes,” Baber said. “This is an outrage and a cruel punishment on a town that has been flooded.”

— Email: [email protected]; follow on Twitter @alannom

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