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Nicholas lawsuit alleges Justice, others tried to block consolidation


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Nicholas County school board has filed its lawsuit against the West Virginia Board of Education and state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine, alleging that the state arbitrarily denied a school consolidation plan, Gov. Jim Justice and Paine tried to block the plan and that Paine misled the state board.

West Virginia schools Superintendent Steven Paine, right, and Board of Education President Thomas W. Campbell attend a Nicholas County schools consolidation meeting earlier this month at the state Capitol. The Nicholas school board filed a lawsuit against Paine and the state board Tuesday afternoon, alleging the state arbitrarily denied the county’s plan, Gov. Jim Justice and Paine tried to block the plan and that Paine misled the state board.
(Photo by Kenny Kemp)

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday afternoon in Kanawha County Circuit Court and assigned to Judge Duke Bloom, also alleges “political pressure” against the consolidation came from others, including Justice ally Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and state Supreme Court Administrative Director Gary Johnson, who served nearly a quarter-century as a Nicholas Circuit Court judge and is a former vice president of the Richwood High School Alumni Association.

The lawsuit seeks to overturn the state board’s denial of the Nicholas consolidation plan.

“Justice has appointed six of the nine current members of the State Board,” the lawsuit notes. “Governor Justice, through his intermediaries, Chief of Staff Nick Casey and State Superintendent Paine, met with and attempted to pressure the Nicholas Co. BOE [Board of Education] through back channels.”

Justice Press Secretary Grant Herring denied that accusation.

“The Governor and his office stayed completely out of the state Board of Education’s decision on Nicholas County,” Herring wrote in an email.

“We do not comment on pending litigation,” state Department of Education Communications Director Kristin Anderson said in response to a request for comment from Paine.

The lawsuit also says the “Nicholas Co. BOE is informed, believes and therefore avers” that Justice removed one of his own appointees, Barbara Whitecotton, from the state board because she earlier attempted to get the Nicholas plan on a meeting agenda for a vote. Before the state Senate could confirm Whitecotton, though, Justice removed her from consideration.

“It’s under litigation right now, and, at this time, I don’t want to say anything,” Whitecotton said Wednesday.

She previously had said that no one told her ahead of time that she was being removed from the board.

The state school board later put the Nicholas plan on a meeting agenda, and then voted against it.

The plan would have merged Richwood Middle, Richwood High, Summersville Middle, Nicholas County High (in Summersville) and the county’s vocational education center (in Craigsville) into a consolidated campus near Summersville, using Federal Emergency Management Agency recovery money received after the devastating June 2016 flood.

Richwood Middle, Richwood High and Summersville Middle were closed because of flood damage.

The state school board, at a June 13 meeting, was presented with a plan that included building a consolidated Richwood Middle/Richwood High. Paine said at that meeting that he thought that alternative could be a “win-win,” and the state rejected the Nicholas board’s consolidation plan the same day.

“Paine stated that an alternative plan existed that the Nicholas Co. BOE never considered,” the lawsuit states.

But the lawsuit alleges that Paine had previously presented that alternative to Nicholas schools Superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick and county board members Gus Penix and A.J. Rogers. Paine allegedly told Penix, the board’s president, and Rogers, who also is executive director of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators, that he “would deny [their] meeting ever occurred,” and told Burge-Tetrick in a separate meeting to “tell no one about their meeting,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Burge-Tetrick and Penix told Paine “that the Nicholas Co. BOE had considered” the alternative.

“The Nicholas Co. BOE is informed, believes and therefore avers that State Superintendent Paine misled the State Board,” the lawsuit says, “to create an excuse for the State Board to not approve the CEFP [Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan] amendment in order to satisfy the preference of Governor Justice to have the schools remain in Richwood.”

State board Vice President Dave Perry said he wasn’t aware of Paine sharing the alternative with Burge-Tetrick and the Nicholas board members before the June 13 state meeting but that, even Paine had done so, Perry said he doesn’t feel misled.

“We deliberated, we asked questions, we looked at the facts, we looked at their documents — now how can that be arbitrary?” Perry said. He said he wasn’t aware of the alternative before the June 13 meeting.

The lawsuit also states that, in the fall, Manchin twice called Burge-Tetrick and “asked her to ‘do him a favor’ and put the schools back in Richwood.”

Asked for a response Wednesday, Manchin said in an email, “Following the floods in Richwood, I met with and talked to many constituents who expressed their concern with the proposed school consolidation in Nicholas County. After hearing their concerns I reached out to education leaders in Nicholas County to convey those concerns and ensure their views were heard. When constituents come to me with their concerns, I have always done whatever I can to assist them and I will continue to do just that.”

The lawsuit alleges that, in February, Casey invited Burge-Tetrick and Penix to Charleston “to discuss consolidation and ‘taking care’ of the Richwood community” — although it doesn’t specify what that discussion involved.

The lawsuit alleges that Johnson, whose wife, Susan, is a Nicholas Chronicle columnist who often criticizes Burge-Tetrick over the Nicholas board’s proposed consolidation plan, texted Rogers on Jan. 23, saying that if Rogers “was going to vote to close Richwood Schools and betray the people of Richwood, he should resign.”

“I said something like that, yes. I remember doing it,” Johnson said Wednesday. “That has nothing to do with my public position that I hold now. I’m a constituent there and he was my board member, and that’s why I sent it.”

Following Johnson losing his judge position in May, on Jan. 4, the state Supreme Court announced Johnson as its new interim administrator, and the court made Johnson’s position permanent on March 6.

Johnson said he got in touch with West Virginia University law professor Bob Bastress, in November or December, and asked him to talk to people who were interested in fighting the Nicholas board’s plan. Bastress eventually represented supporters of rebuilding the Richwood schools in the Richwood area pro bono in a case against the county board — a case the Richwood side lost in Nicholas Circuit Court at the start of this month.

The Nicholas board’s lawsuit against Paine and the state board was filed a day after Tom Lange, a member of the West Virginia School Building Authority board, went on a public tirade against Paine and new SBA Executive Director Frank “Bucky” Blackwell over what happened at the June 13 meeting.

Lange said the event “showed a lack of character” on the part of Blackwell and Paine, said Blackwell “overstepped” his authority as executive director and told Blackwell, “I think you got together with the state superintendent and pulled this off.”

At the June 13 meeting, Paine called Scott Raines, an SBA official, to the lectern, where Raines revealed, for the first time publicly, a general plan to create a consolidated Richwood Middle/Richwood High and a consolidated Summersville Middle/Nicholas County High. Raines said the latter consolidation also could include the vocational education center.

Raines said after that meeting that he’d previously discussed the plan only with Paine and Blackwell. Raines said Blackwell told him in mid-to-late April that it would be good to look at alternatives to the Nicholas board’s plan. Raines said he and Blackwell then presented the alternative to Paine in April or May.

“I’m just thinking that this could be a win-win, and I don’t think that plan … has ever been shared with anybody,” Paine said at the June 13 meeting. He also said, “I don’t think anybody in this room has heard it.”

But the lawsuit alleges that, around May 11, Paine called Penix and Rogers to Charleston to “‘share’ an alternative plan.” Paine allegedly told the two Nicholas board members that “he was a good friend of Governor Justice.”

Paine allegedly told them that “neither he nor Governor Justice were ‘formally’ involved in the CEFP amendment approval process.”

Paine then allegedly shared with them the same plan that was revealed on June 13. Penix replied that Burge-Tetrick had already considered it, the lawsuit states.

“Superintendent Burge-Tetrick was also invited to meet with State Superintendent Paine and asked to come alone,” the lawsuit states. Paine allegedly told Burge-Tetrick it was “unconscionable” to close the Richwood schools, and presented the same alternative plan. Burge-Tetrick allegedly told Paine she had considered the plan.

At the June 13 meeting, Burge-Tetrick did say a county resident previously had presented the alternative to Penix.

The lawsuit alleges that, at a February meeting at a Summersville Burger King, Richwood dentist and Nicholas County Commissioner Lloyd Adkins told Penix that the Nicholas board should create a consolidated Richwood Middle/Richwood High. Penix allegedly responded that Burge-Tetrick already had considered that plan and “found that it was not feasible.”

The lawsuit refers to what Adkins allegedly presented as the “One Richwood School Plan,” saying it is the same plan Paine supposedly told Burge-Tetrick and the two Nicholas board members about and that Raines unveiled June 13.

That’s despite Raines telling the Gazette-Mail that Blackwell told him it would be good to look at alternatives to Nicholas’ plan after February, and Raines seeming to suggest during the June 13 meeting that he came up with the idea independently: “One of the plans that I thought about was, what if we found a way to do a middle school/high school in the Richwood area and a middle school/high school somewhere in the Summersville area.”

Raines’ June 13 presentation had no handouts and few details. There were no specific school sites provided.

“I wouldn’t know Bucky Blackwell if I met him, and I’ve never talked to Blackwell or Paine about that,” Adkins said.

When asked about allegations in the lawsuit regarding himself, Adkins said, “Obviously, this is going to court, or it’s heading that direction. At this point, I don’t want to make any further comments with that, but there’s a lot that I disagree with.”

The lawsuit also argues that, “In their public board meetings, the Nicholas BOE identified the pros and cons of consolidating the schools in Richwood.”

The lawsuit also accuses the state board of “improper partiality” toward Richwood students over other students in the county, alleging that the state never considered travel time to Richwood schools by students who don’t live in Richwood.

“Most of the students attending the Richwood Schools live outside the City of Richwood and live closer or an equal distance from the proposed location at the Glade Creek Business Park,” the lawsuit says of the Nicholas board’s proposed consolidated campus location, “so that the length of bus runs would either be reduced or remain the same, and that travel to the Career and Technical Center in Craigsville from the Nicholas County high schools would be eliminated.”

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