Green questions SBA ability to reject Fayette consolidation plan

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Green questions SBA ability to reject Fayette consolidation plan
By Sarah Plummer, The Register-Herald 

As Fayette County reels from the School Building Authority's decision to nix an amendment to the county's Comprehensive Educations Facilities Plan Monday, some question the board's ability to reject the amendment on the basis of proposed consolidation.

West Virginia Board of Education President Mike Green said he was surprised by the vote and believes the School Building Authority (SBA) only has the ability to accept or reject facilities plans based on if proposals meet certain criteria, not make judgments on the content.

According to MetroNews, Green has sent a letter to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin requesting another vote on the plan.

"As I understand the law, and as was reflected in the SBA agenda, at this stage of the process, the SBA only has the authority to ascertain that all required pre-qualification data has been filed. It is not, nor should it be, the place of the SBA to substitute its judgment on the elements of the plan for that of the presenting board of education," said Green. "The law provides for SBA to make funding decisions at the appropriate time and I hope to continue conversations with the voting members to understand what they perceived to be non-compliant portions of the plan.”

MetroNews quoted the letter, saying, “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.”

The letter continued, “Yesterday’s SBA meeting crossed the threshold of open government compliance when members transitioned a perfunctory consent agenda item into a substantive and official action in direct contradiction of West Virginia law and Ethics Commission Opinion 2007-12, which holds that “each member of a governing body must exercise due care to insure that asking questions of staff or speakers does not transition from the domain of obtaining relevant information into dialogue among the members regarding the merits of a matter on which the Board may reasonably expect to take official action.”

According to the SBA Sept. 28 agenda, the amendment to Fayette County's facilities plan was reviewed by SBA staff and the State Department of Education Office of School Facilities and "Fayette County has complied with SBA CEFP (Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan) Amendment Process."

Executive Director David Sneed recommended the 11-member board approve the amendment.

While West Virginia State Code does not explicitly state if the authority should or should not review facilities plans based on their content, code pertaining to the authority does say plans should address facilities' needs based on efficient delivery of education.

It also says facilities plans should "best serve the needs of individual students, the general school population and the communities served by the facilities, including, but not limited to, providing for a facility infrastructure that avoids excessive school bus transportation times for students consistent with sound educational policy and within the budgetary constraints for staffing and operating the schools of the county."

Plans must be approved by the authority before projects can be considered for funding, and State Code §18-9D-6 is much more clear on how the authority should assess projects seeking funds.

The West Virginia Legislature has declared it is first the responsibility of the county to maintain or construct schools based on its ability to pass a bond and its bonding capacity, not on its educational needs or the ability of the SBA to fund a project.

Improvements should be made "through bonds and special levies whenever possible," although the SBA is mandated to allocate funds based on student health and safety, economies of scale, pupil-teacher ratios, reasonable travel time, curriculum improvement and diversification, and "the history of efforts taken by the county board to propose or adopt local school bond issues or special levies to the extent Constitutionally permissible."

Forty-three counties have levies, and Fayette is one of about 20 that have 100 percent levies. Fayette's levy is used primarily to pay for employees who fall outside the formula funded by the state.

Fayette has three professional educators and 48 school personnel employees above the state-aid funding for fiscal year 2015.

On Monday, Fayette Superintendent Terry George said the SBA rejected the amendment because members don't feel consolidation plans are supported by local residents.

Residents of Meadow Bridge have been adamantly opposed to the consolidation of their high school. Fayetteville residents have opposed consolidation plans leading up to the bond election, but none has been vocal at public meetings since.

Precinct data from the June 13 election makes it unclear if the county opposed consolidation or tax increases. Only four Oak Hill precincts favored the bond by 26 votes or less, and all other Oak Hill precincts and areas not under threat of consolidation voted in opposition.

Tomblin appoints SBA members but the board operates independently of the governor's office.

Tomblin said he is committed "to ensuring all students in West Virginia have access to the best education possible in a quality learning environment. State officials are willing to assist the local community in creating an appropriate plan that best serves Fayette County students without creating an undue burden on the SBA’s ability to help fund other worthy school improvement projects statewide."

School Building Authority Executive Director David Sneed did not respond to calls or e-mails Monday or Tuesday.