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WVBE member files ethics complaint against board president

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WVBE member files ethics complaint against board president
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

As an expected decision on funding Fayette County’s controversial school consolidation plan nears, a West Virginia Board of Education member has filed an ethics complaint against the board’s president regarding related issues.

State school board member Bill White said he signed a complaint Thursday against board President Mike Green, alleging that a state school board member handbook the board approved in October was formed outside of required open meetings, wasn’t properly filed with the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability and contains illegal language.

An attachment in support of his complaint also alleges that it was illegal for Green to have Kristin Anderson, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, send out a news release that, according to White, “promoted his personal agenda and not that of the [state school] Board.”

White previously took issue with Green’s letter, publicized by Green in a release Anderson sent to the news media, in which he asked Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to call a meeting for the state School Building Authority’s board to reverse its previous decision to not approve Fayette’s consolidation plan. Green said the SBA vote was illegal.

The governor refused to call that meeting. However, the SBA board has since reversed its decision anyway.

White was alone among the nine state school board members in voting in October against approving the member handbook — Tom Campbell wasn’t present at the meeting.

“There’s a pattern of Mike, in my opinion, not adhering to the tenets of the open meetings law,” White said.

White also was the only member, at a July meeting that Campbell also was absent from, to vote against Green being named president, accusing his colleagues then of a “back-room deal.”

White has raised issues with a portion of the handbook that says state school board members serving on other “committees, agencies or authorities by virtue of appointment on behalf of the [state school] Board . . . should consider the clear position of the Board in all proceedings” before other agencies.

“If for good reason the member cannot support the position of the Board, then not to place the member in opposition to the position of the Board, the member should consider abstaining from voting,” the document states.

White said he felt the handbook language was in reaction to the SBA board’s original vote to shoot down Fayette’s plan to build a new high school and consolidate four others. The plan had the support of a majority of state school board members and state Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano. White wasn’t on the SBA at the time, but has since become one of the three school board members who are on both boards. Martirano also has a vote on the SBA board.

Green did not return requests for comment Monday, but he previously has defended his actions against White’s allegations.

School board attorney Mary Catherine Tuckwiller — who said she wouldn’t be involved in any ethics complaints between board members, to avoid a conflict of interest — said the handbook wasn’t discussed outside of open meetings and does adhere to state law. She also said there’s a process for board members to suggest changes to the handbook but that no members have requested changes.

The state Ethics Commission has yet to determine if there is probable cause that Green committed the violations he’s accused of.

The board voted in September to approve Fayette’s consolidation plan, with White being one of only three members to vote against it. Campbell made a motion at that meeting to amend the plan to prevent the closure of Meadow Bridge High, and White seconded the motion to bring it to a vote, but the amendment failed. Meadow Bridge is Fayette’s smallest and most remote high school, but it has a loyal group of supporters who have consistently fought against its closing.

Later in September, the SBA’s board initially denied Fayette’s consolidation plan, a move that meant it wouldn’t even consider funding it with the state general revenue and lottery money it distributes. However, in November — after the Fayette County Commission filed a lawsuit against the SBA questioning the legality of the decision — the SBA board unanimously reversed course and approved the plan.

That reversal, however, doesn’t mean the SBA board will ultimately vote to fund the plan. It’s expected to make a decision at a meeting set to begin 9:30 a.m. Monday in the 10th floor conference room of the West Virginia Lottery building, at 900 Pennsylvania Ave., Charleston.

The state school board is meeting by teleconference at 3 p.m. Tuesday to consider a resolution that would recommend the SBA make funding Fayette’s plan a priority. Members of the public can listen in at Room 353 of Building 6 on the Capitol Complex.

White said he still doesn’t know how he’ll vote next week, saying he’s yet to see how the SBA staff will rank which projects they believe their board should fund in this year’s annual “needs” grant cycle.

White also takes issue in his ethics complaint with part of the handbook regarding $100 daily payments board members can receive when they perform certain duties. The handbook quotes state law that says voting members of the board “shall be paid one hundred dollars per diem each day or any part thereof spent in the performance of their duties under this article.”

The handbook then states: “While the statute provides both for a per diem payment and reimbursement of expenses, the Board believes there are situations where reimbursement of expenses is appropriate while the collection of a per diem by a member is not.”

It then includes, among a list of “guidelines” it says are based on state code, this, regarding the National Association of State Boards of Education: “members will not be eligible to receive per diem payment for traveling to or from meetings or for attendance at NASBE meetings.”

“This discourages me from doing my job or representing West Virginia in the best positive light,” said White, who attends NASBE meetings. “This is not about Bill White, this is about any member of this board being able to do his or her job, and for future board members to be able to do their job.”

Tuckwiller said NASBE is not mentioned in state law, and membership in it is not considered essential to state school board members performing their duties.