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Tomblin denies Green's request to reverse SBA vote on Fayette

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Tomblin denies Green's request to reverse SBA vote on Fayette
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

The West Virginia Board of Education’s president has called the state School Building Authority’s recent vote to shoot down Fayette County’s high school consolidation plan “unprecedented,” “improper” and unlawful, but the governor has refused to call a special meeting to reverse the decision.

A Tuesday evening press release from the state Department of Education publicized a letter that Mike Green, the state school board’s president, sent earlier that day to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Alleging “excesses of the SBA and the possible violation of the West Virginia Open Meetings Act,” Green asked Tomblin or his designee on the SBA’s board to immediately call a special meeting to reverse the board’s decision on Monday to not approve a proposed change to Fayette’s building plan.

“The decision to approve or disapprove the proposed amendment rested solely with the WVBE,” Green wrote, “which approved the amendment in a 6-3 vote in early September.”

But Shayna Varner, Tomblin’s press secretary, sent the Gazette-Mail an email Wednesday afternoon noting the SBA’s limited funds and Fayette’s repeated failure to pass school building and renovation bonds. “According to state code, it is the SBA’s duty to ensure sound fiscal management of public funds and to reject budget amendments that are not feasible,” Varner wrote. “It has done so here, and the governor has no plans to call the SBA into a special meeting.”

Green said in a Wednesday phone interview that he sent out the letter on his own accord after conferring with Mary Catherine Tuckwiller, the state school board’s attorney.

Tom Campbell and Bill White, two state school board members who voted no on the building plan amendment, said they had nothing to do with the letter. Campbell also serves on the SBA board, voted Monday to deny the amendment and said he doesn’t think the vote was illegal. White will gain a seat on the SBA board next month.

Green said he hadn’t heard any expressions of support for the letter from other board members before sending it out.

State law says West Virginia’s current governor or his designee chairs the SBA board, and the governor also appoints the SBA’s executive director, who oversees SBA employees.

Kristin Anderson, spokeswoman for both the education department and the state school board, said Green asked her to distribute his letter to the media. Anderson said that because Green is the school board president, and the president serves as “spokesperson” for the full board, she would send out communications he requests.

Fayette’s building plan amendment, which the education department supported, would’ve allowed Fayette to compete with other counties in December for SBA funding. Terry George, the state-appointed superintendent of Fayette’s school system, said he intended to request $13 million annually from the SBA over the next three years. Combined with $17 million in local dollars, George said that could fund building the estimated $52 million to $58 million new consolidated high school.

Green said he sent the letter out without consulting Peter Markham, the governor’s general counsel and SBA designee, or David Sneed, the SBA’s executive director, because of the urgency of a Thursday deadline for counties to submit projects for SBA funding consideration in December. White said he was concerned board members weren’t contacted beforehand, saying Green’s action sets a “very dangerous precedent.”

“There may be some things that are detrimental to the board that he may do without talking to us,” White said.

White was the only board member to vote against Green’s appointment as president in July, accusing his fellow board members of a “back room deal.” Campbell wasn’t present for that state school board meeting.

Campbell said Green’s letter is just one more example of “desperation” to pass the consolidation plan — which would combine Fayetteville, Meadow Bridge, Midland Trail and Oak Hill high schools into a new school with about 1,500 to 1,600 students — despite Fayette residents’ opposition. He said he wondered why the same effort hasn’t been put into fixing Collins Middle and Meadow Bridge High, which would both be closed under the plan the SBA shot down.

State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano ordered the closure of Collins Middle’s seventh- and eighth-grade building in January because of structural issues, sending about 400 students to county high schools. The second floor of Meadow Bridge High has also been condemned, though the school’s supporters are suing to get the education department to allow a second structural opinion.

“Why has there not been desperation to get the kids back in buildings that they’ve been kicked out of?” Campbell said.

The state school board took control of Fayette schools in 2010, after a state Office of Education Performance Audits report said the local school board was “unwilling to deal with the very small high schools and support a plan to combine some and improve severe facility deficiencies, limited curriculum, and poorly achieving schools.”

George created the new consolidation plan following his appointment in June, after Fayette voters rejected a bond that would’ve consolidated schools differently but still closed Meadow Bridge High. The school has a loyal group of community supporters as well as state school board members who don’t want to see it closed.

In his letter, Green highlighted a portion in the introduction to the SBA’s consent agenda for Monday — part of the full meeting agenda, available online at sba.wv.gov/agenda/Pages/Current-Agenda.aspx.

“For amendments relating to 2016 NEEDs Projects, approval of the amendments does not indicate financial support for these projects,” the portion reads. “SBA approval simply acknowledges that the proper amendment process has been followed by the County Board of Education.

“A single motion of the Authority may approve all items on the Consent Agenda or, should an individual item be of interest to a member, it may be pulled for discussion.”

As on other government boards, the “consent agenda” section of a full meeting agenda is generally meant to deal with routine business and is often passed with a single vote on all issues. But Tom Lange, an SBA board member, asked that the Fayette amendment be removed from the consent agenda to be discussed and voted on separately. Lange then became the first of several board members to criticize the amendment before they eventually voted it down.

“Nothing in the agenda item suggests any a (sic) plan can be rejected,” Green wrote. “It is incomprehensible to me how a consent agenda item approved by the WVBE and endorsed by Executive Director (David) Sneed to simply acknowledge ‘that the proper amendment process has been followed by the County Board of Education,’ (and in Fayette County’s case, the WVBE which has direct oversight) became a vote on the substantive merit of the plan for future funding.”

Past the introduction, the consent agenda does state Fayette “has complied with the SBA CEFP (Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan) Amendment Process” and recommends approval of the amendment.

Green continued to write in his letter that the “SBA effectively took on the role of a super board of education and, without the benefit of all the public debate and input, simply determined it knew more than the State Board that submitted the amendment. Such an action is beyond the statute and beyond the notice provided in the SBA agenda.”

Two SBA board members Monday — Lange and Eric Lewis, both of Jefferson County — suggested the board should vote against the plan so as not to give Fayette “false hope” that members would approve funding in December. Previously, the Gazette-Mail incorrectly attributed Lange’s “false hope” comment to Steve Burton, who also voted against the Fayette amendment.

Green also wrote “those members of SBA who by their comments apparently have prejudged the funding decision” should consider recusing themselves from any second vote on the amendment.