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State school board rejects Nicholas County schools plan for second time

By RUSTY MARKS

The State Journal

Members of the state Board of Education voted to turn down a Nicholas County school consolidation plan on Monday, July 10, perhaps even more adamantly than they rejected the plan in June.

The vote came after an hour of comments from members of the public as well as four hours of testimony and presentations from Nicholas County school officials.

In March, the Nicholas County school board voted on a consolidation plan that would consolidate Nicholas County High School, Richwood High School, the county vocational and technical center, Richwood Middle School and Summersville Middle School onto a single campus near Summersville. The plan would pay for the consolidation almost exclusively using money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA declared Richwood High School, Richwood Middle School and Summersville Middle School as total losses following June 2016 flooding. Nicholas County school officials had originally talked about replacing the damaged schools in or near their original locations.

But Nicholas County School Superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick said Monday that as school officials started looking further into what it would take to replace the schools, a single consolidated campus started to make a lot more sense.

Burge-Tetrick said school officials considered 11 different possible sites for new schools, but found most were either too small or lacked infrastructure such as roads, water and sewer service. She said the super-campus site made the most sense financially, would allow for expanded educational opportunities for students and would keep some students from travelling to the other end of Nicholas County to take classes at the county’s single technical center.

Nicholas County transportation officials also said the consolidation plan would make for shorter or nearly equal bus rides for the vast majority of students, with only students who actually live in Richwood having significantly longer bus rides.

Of 326 students at Richwood Middle School, it was pointed out, only 53 actually live in Richwood. Only 86 of the 389 students at Richwood High School live in town.

Fourteen people signed up to address the state school board about the consolidation plan, with all but four urging the board to trust the Nicholas County plan. However, the 70 or so people in attendance at the meeting appeared about evenly split on the issue, with many wearing Richwood’s colors of orange and black or sporting T-shirts with slogans such as #iamrichwood.

Members of the state school board zeroed in on Nicholas County’s plan to build the consolidated campus under a FEMA program that requires the work be done at a predetermined fixed price. School board members were worried that cost overruns would have to be picked up by taxpayers.

Board members were also concerned about the divisions the plan had created in the county, which board member Debra Sullivan called “the Civil War without guns.” Sullivan said Richwood’s schools outperformed many in the state.

“How can you assure the public that a consolidated school that is 24 miles away is as good as or better than what they currently have in Richwood?” she wanted to know.

Sullivan and other board members also made much of the fact that Nicholas County school officials had apparently not given any serious consideration to consolidation prior to the June floods. As recently as 2016, Nicholas County officials had been asking the state for money to upgrade Richwood schools.

Sullivan said it looked like Nicholas County school officials took advantage of the floods to push through a plan.

When the state school board rejected the Nicholas County consolidation plan in June, they asked the school board to go back and seek public input on alternative plans. Although Burge-Tetrick set up a group with members from both the Summersville and Richwood areas to talk about the consolidation plan, the group had only one meeting.

State school board member Dave Perry said he had seen no evidence of “meaningful dialogue” between the two sides about the consolidation plan since the state board’s June meeting. He also said the Nicholas County school board had other options than the consolidation plan that was presented and that there was evidence there was property available in or near Richwood to replace Richwood High School and Richwood Middle School.

For those reasons, Perry made a motion to again reject the Nicholas County consolidation plan. The motion passed by a vote of 6-1.

Meanwhile, the Nicholas County school board has taken the state school board to Kanawha County Circuit Court, alleging state school officials were pressured by Gov. Jim Justice and others, and that the June decision to reject Nicholas County’s consolidation plan was politically motivated. A hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday, July 11 before Circuit Judge Duke Bloom.

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