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Fayette commissioners to sue over denied school consolidation plan

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Fayette commissioners to sue over denied school consolidation plan
By Samuel Speciale, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

Fayette County commissioners say they’ll sue the state School Building Authority over its Sept. 28 decision to deny a request that would have consolidated several of the beleaguered county’s schools.

In a special meeting on Monday, commissioners unanimously agreed to partner with Mountain State Justice, a nonprofit Charleston-based law firm. Commissioner Matt Wender said the firm will only charge for filing fees and costs of expenses. Commissioners pledged $5,000 for the case.

The school consolidation request, presented as an amendment to the county’s comprehensive educational facilities plan, would have started a multi-phase reconfiguration of several failing facilities throughout the county. It would have consolidated four of the district’s five high schools into a new building and either merged or reconfigured several middle and elementary schools.

The plan, which the state Department of Education and Board of Education supported, would have allowed the district to compete with other counties later this year for School Building Authority funds. That money, which comes from state general revenue and lottery accounts, would have provided most of the estimated $58 million needed to construct the new high school. The rest, Fayette County Superintendent Terry George said, would have come from local funds.

George, who was appointed in June by state Superintendent Michael Martirano (Fayette County has been controlled by the state Board of Education since 2010), said the district would only need $13 million in authority funding annually over the next three years. The remaining $17 million would come from local sources.

Authority members denied that request while expressing concerns that neither Fayette residents nor its school board voted for the consolidation plan. In June, voters overwhelmingly defeated a bond that would have generated $38.9 million for the construction of a new Collins Middle School, which was ordered closed in January due to structural issues.

When asked by state Board of Education President Mike Green to call a special meeting to overturn the authority’s decision, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declined to do so. His office later issued a statement that said the authority is tasked, in state law, to “ensure sound fiscal management of public funds and to reject budget amendments that are not feasible.”

“It has done so here,” Tomblin spokeswoman Shayna Varner told the Gazette-Mail last week.

Wender said many in Fayette County are disappointed that voters nixed the bond. In fact, Fayette residents have not passed a new bond since 1973. Similar attempts were unsuccessful in 2001 and 2009.

“However,” Wender said. “It must again be emphatically stated, the bond elections results in no way indicate the approval of the vast majority of parents who overwhelmingly support the amended CEFP.”

In a statement, Wender went on to say two authority members he didn’t name are robbing the future of Fayette students.

“Education is the first rung on the economic ladder,” he said. “Nothing is more fundamental to the future of our state and its citizens. We have no choice but to pursue every alternative open to us to gain those educational opportunities our children deserve.”

Mountain State Justice founder and executive director Dan Hedges was the lead lawyer in Pauley v. Bailey, a 1982 landmark education case more commonly known as the Recht decision. That ruling, named after the judge who presided over the case, restructured education in West Virginia, requiring more equitable funding of schools.

Wender, in a statement, all but called the authority’s decision, and the governor’s subsequent refusal to reverse it, a violation of that decision.

“Unfortunately our governor has chosen to not take a position on the matter of the unprecedented action taken last week by the state School Building Authority by disqualifying our county from having a fair and unbiased review of the amended CEFP as previously approved by the state Board of Education,” he said.

“In absolute terms, our Fayette County students deserve an educational opportunity on par with those in the balance of the state.”