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SBA staff concerned with Fayette consolidation plan

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SBA staff concerned with Fayette consolidation plan
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

Alongside endorsements of other counties’ proposed projects, state School Building Authority employees have expressed concerns with Fayette County’s controversial high school consolidation plan.

That’s according to staff comments attached to an agenda for the SBA board’s meeting Monday, when the board is expected to choose which school construction and renovation projects to fund. Twenty counties have requested funding in this year’s annual “needs” grant cycle.

The comments say Fayette’s proposal to build a more than $50 million new high school in the Oak Hill area was developed without SBA employees’ input. To help fund the project, Fayette is requesting $39.6 million over the next three years from the SBA, which distributes general revenue and lottery money.

“Staff is concerned about several issues such as student travel, the cost of the solution and the availability of funding to convert the remaining schools to K-8 facilities, etc.,” the comments read.

Fayette schools Superintendent Terry George said the SBA has been aware of what the county has been considering since July and has, in fact, given useful input. He said SBA Executive Director David Sneed even got him in touch with the financial specialist who helped compose a planned school equipment lease that’s expected to provide $11 million in local funding to the project.

“They’ve had ample opportunity to provide input,” George said. “I think they’ve been very helpful.”

The West Virginia Board of Education, which took control of Fayette’s school system from its locally elected school board in 2010, passed a resolution Tuesday urging the SBA to make funding Fayette’s project a priority. Tom Campbell and Bill White were the only ones out of the nine state school board members to vote against the resolution, but the two hold half of the state school board’s actual votes on the SBA board.

Gayle Manchin was the only state school board member absent Tuesday; her term has expired but she can technically serve until the governor names a replacement.

Citing a requirement in state law for it to recommend the funding, the state school board’s resolution says the “deplorable conditions” of Fayette’s school buildings pose “a danger to the life and health of the students and staff.” The resolution states the state school board has no money to fix the problems itself, and without SBA funding, the state school board will be “unable to fulfill its duties regarding facility needs.”

Campbell and White, who voted against Fayette’s consolidation plan when it came before the state school board for a previous vote, both called Tuesday’s resolution “combative” and attempted to amend it. Their failed amendment would have, among other changes, nixed the language about the buildings posing a danger; said the state school board is ready to work with the SBA to evaluate and fund temporarily reopening closed schools; and said the SBA hasn’t been able to “vet or provide technical assistance or provide alternatives” to the current consolidation plan.

Construction of the proposed high school, which is projected to have about 1,550 students, would allow three other high schools to convert to accept pre-kindergarten through eighth grades and Oak Hill High to become a fifth-through-eighth grade school. The Oak Hill High conversion would enable the closure of Collins Middle, where more than 400 students have been moved out of a condemned building to other schools.

In their comments, SBA staff say renovations to convert the high schools — Fayetteville, Midland Trail and Meadow Bridge — into pre-K-8 schools must include installing in planned pre-K and kindergarten rooms individual restrooms and direct exits to outdoor play areas. The staff wrote the $3.5 million estimated cost of these, as well as other planned renovations, had not been developed by a design professional.

Sneed said Tuesday the staff still were awaiting information from two counties before finalizing the rankings of which projects they will suggest the board fund. But the comments, available online at sba.wv.gov as an attachment to the agenda for Monday’s meeting, do shed light on the staff’s thoughts.

They called the proposals from Harrison, Jackson, Logan and Raleigh counties an “excellent use of SBA funds.” Others received no clear endorsements, while some received negative comments.

Sneed said there will be $57 million available to distribute during this year’s cycle, up from the $52 million to $55 million estimate he previously gave. He also said state law would allow the SBA board to approve funding for up to 50 percent above its available amount this year — a total of about $85.5 million — through taking away from future years, but he won’t recommend it due to uncertainties in the state budget.

Funding the requested amounts this year from Harrison, Jackson, Logan and Raleigh counties would total only $37.4 million, allowing the SBA board to fund more counties’ proposals.

The SBA meeting will begin at 9:30 a.m. Monday in the 10th floor conference room of the West Virginia Lottery building at 900 Pennsylvania Ave., Charleston.