Fayette school problems heat up state school board meeting

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Fayette school problems heat up state school board meeting
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

West Virginia Board of Education President Mike Green and fellow board member Bill White continued their public disagreement Wednesday following a forceful showing from Fayette County residents about school consolidation issues in their county.

White first took issue with Green’s letter to the media and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin that called the state School Building Authority’s Sept. 28 vote to shoot down Fayette’s high school consolidation plan “unprecedented,” “improper” and unlawful. Green asked the governor to call a special SBA meeting to reverse the decision

The state school board had previously approved the Fayette consolidation plan, even though some members didn’t want to close Meadow Bridge High.

Green said he didn’t hear from other state school board members before he sent the letter to reporters through state Department of Education spokeswoman Kristin Anderson.

“I didn’t know we were going to open up this particular can of worms, but that letter was written because we are against the clock,” Green told White at Wednesday’s meeting after White broached the issue. “... This board elected officers of this board to make decisions on behalf of the board, and it’s just not practical, in my opinion, to be able to poll the board on every single issue.”

“How long does it take to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey Bill, this is an issue?’” White asked.

Even though the governor has not called for a special meeting for the SBA board to reconsider its decision, Fayette County Schools Superintendent Terry George has submitted the plan to the SBA for reconsideration, along with a funding request for the proposed consolidated high school, which would combine four current schools and cost more than $50 million. Unless the SBA board approves the plan, it can’t approve funding for the project in December, when it will choose how to dole out limited building funds to counties.

Officials from the Fayette County school system have pushed the consolidation as a way to fix facility issues with the county’s limited money. The state education department — which took over the Fayette school system in 2010 after a report said the county 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” — supports the plan.

White, who voted against the Fayette plan when it came before the state school board last month, is scheduled to gain a seat on the 11-member SBA board next month. He will join state school board member Tom Campbell, who voted against the Fayette consolidation plan on the state school board and on the SBA board.

Two state school board members who voted for the Fayette plan are also on the SBA board; Tina Combs again supported the plan at the SBA meeting last month, while Wade Linger said he couldn’t vote because he was getting on a plane. State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano, who doesn’t get a vote on the state school board, also voted for the plan on the SBA board.

White, who voted against Green’s appointment as president in July, also objected Wednesday to the state school board voting to pass an update to its handbook.

White said he hadn’t had time to review the handbook before Thursday’s meeting. He did say he found problems with the document, specifically a portion 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 [state school] 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 handbook states. White said after the meeting he felt the handbook language was a reaction to the SBA board’s vote.

Green said board members were given a chance before the meeting to offer comments and questions on the handbook.

“We did not change any code, any policies. This is a handbook,” Green said. “... It’s not necessary in the opinion of counsel and, I guess I’ll speak for myself, that we need to have this flushed out in a public setting.”

After a back-and-forth that included White interrupting Green — Green asked “Can I finish my sentence, sir?” — school board member Gayle Manchin called for a vote. The nine-member board voted 7-1 to approve the handbook; Campbell wasn’t present Wednesday.

Also Wednesday, a group of Fayette residents again spoke to the state school board about facility issues in their county. The residents often travel to board meetings in Charleston

The meeting also featured Collins Middle School students standing alongside speakers, holding up large images of dilapidated parts of Collins Middle and other Fayette schools.

Martirano ordered the closure of Collins Middle’s seventh- and eighth-grade building in January because of structural issues. About 400 Collins Middle students were sent to county high schools.

Though the meeting started around 10 a.m., more than 20 people waited until about noon to speak. Most speakers — many in orange FUSE shirts, standing for Fayette United for Safe Education — attended in favor of the high school consolidation plan.

Jason Young told board members he and his wife moved to Fayette in 2005. He said there’s still no place they’d rather be, but he hoped he wasn’t before them to say goodbye.

“But now we have kids, and the more we look around us and see what’s going on with the Fayette County school system, the more we wonder whether we should be packing up,” Young said.

Young stopped in the middle of his speech to the board for Linger to stop texting on his cellphone. “I’ll happily give up two minutes if anybody needs to send a text,” he said.

Linger then got up and left the meeting. He told a reporter he could still hear the presenters in another room through a speaker.

“I just didn’t want to sit here and be personally attacked,” Linger said. He noted that the state school board had already approved the consolidation plan.

“I understand the public has the right to way what they want to say,” he said, “but I’m perplexed why they’d want to come here and beat up on us when that particular view was endorsed by the board last month.”