Fayette school board wants all buildings inspected
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette
The Fayette County Board of Education has requested inspections of all school buildings in the district, following the sudden Jan. 12 closure of a Collins Middle School building that forced roughly 400 students to miss almost a week of school.
Board member Leon Ivey said all five members presented a letter at a meeting Friday requesting that the state Department of Education approve comprehensive structural inspections, plus air quality inspections. The move follows a structural inspection of the Collins Middle seventh- and eighth-grade building earlier this month that led state schools Superintendent Michael Martirano to order the building shuttered.
After Collins’ closure, Ivey said he had been forwarding Fayette residents’ numerous requests for more inspections to the department and the state school board, which took over the district about five years ago. He said the state had asked for a show of the Fayette board’s support for the action.
“I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails, asking ‘Please, make sure our children are safe,’” he said.
The Collins seventh graders returned to classes Tuesday at Fayetteville High School and the eighth graders returned at Oak Hill High School. The district is still seeking a permanent home for them.
County Superintendent Serena Starcher said the district wants to put a property tax increase before voters in May or June to fund building a new Collins, and possibly other projects such as portable trailer classrooms that could be built on the Collins campus as a home for students until the new building is constructed — a process that’ll likely take several years.
Starcher estimated it will cost $27 million to build a new school. The district is currently seeking a bond adviser to help suggest the right amount of money to request from voters. The superintendent told state school board members earlier this month that Fayette voters haven’t passed a bond since 1973, making Fayette one of 14 counties that haven’t passed a bond since then.
Less than 23 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of the last attempted bond in 2009, Starcher said, and less than 14 percent approved of a previous attempt in 2001. Both of those bonds would’ve moved Collins students to Oak Hill High.
Fayette’s current school building plan doesn’t suggest that move; instead, it calls for a new school to be built at the current Collins location. The plan was formulated even before the district apparently realized the extent of the problems at the school.
Starcher originally planned to have Collins students back in class by Jan. 15.
“With having to move furniture to the two high schools, moving teacher materials, moving supplies, it took longer than two days,” Starcher said. “Our maintenance department actually worked through the weekend and the (Martin Luther King Day) holiday to have it ready for the students to return.”
The superintendent said students won’t have to make up the days because the Department of Education has approved the use of already banked instructional time to compensate. Starcher said Collins students go to school about 30 minutes longer each day than the 5-and-a-half daily minimum hours the state requires middle schoolers to be in class.
While the Collins fifth and sixth graders remain in their old building on campus, the cafeteria they eat in was shuttered because it was part of the seventh- and eighth-grade building that was closed.
Starcher said the fifth and sixth graders have been eating in their classrooms, except for a mistake one morning when they apparently ate breakfast on the floor. On Thursday, the school opened up a cafeteria in a renovated shop on campus. With help from some cooks formerly at Collins, nearby New River Elementary School’s kitchen is being used to prepare meals for the middle school, which are then transported to the school.
After hearing from Starcher at their meeting earlier this month, some members of the state school board said they don’t have authority to allocate funds to fix Fayette’s problems.
“Maybe, we could’ve been a little more aggressive, perhaps, about things,” said board member Lloyd Jackson. “But you all have tried and we’ve tried. We don’t have money independently as a school board to just start building buildings down there.
“…At some point, the people of Fayette County have to step up and pass a bond there, and I think we’ve got to give them the opportunity as soon as possible to do that.”
Jackson’s comments came after about a dozen Fayette residents urged action to fix the district’s facilities. Some speakers, rushing to finish their comments in the 2-minutes apiece the board allotted them, accused members of inaction, and said if it they don’t fix things they should give power back to the local school board.
“I’m not here to talk about the failure of the board of education in Fayette County because you took us over 5 years ago,” Ivey said. “I’m here to talk about your failure as a board for 5 years of doing nothing.”
Ivey criticized the state school board in the fall of 2013, when it voted to exclude Fayette’s smallest high school, Meadow Bridge, from a proposed high school consolidation that Ivey argued would save money and increase educational opportunities for students. He said the board particularly needs to get out of the way of consolidating schools in the district, where he said total enrollment has dropped from 13,000 when he graduated high school in 1991 to fewer than 7,000 today.
Denise Smithson, a faculty member at Collins, told the state school board many were hopeful for improvement in Fayette schools before it took over, but their spirits have since been broken.
“We have lost our school community and outstanding, award-winning music and band program,” Smithson said. “We have lost our school library, our yearbook, we have lost our gymnasium, our cafeteria, our art rooms, our science labs, and finally, we have lost, in its entirety, our student body. We have been decimated, and divorced, it could not be more painful.”