SBA denies funding for Fayette consolidations

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SBA denies funding for Fayette consolidations
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

The state School Building Authority’s board chose Monday to deny funding for Fayette County’s controversial consolidation plan.

Of the 11 board members, only State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano and Tina Combs, who’s also a state school board member, were heard voting against removing Fayette’s proposal from consideration. Peter Markham, the SBA board’s chairman and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s designee, only votes in case of a tie.

Later, in another voice vote with no nays heard, the SBA board approved funding for Kanawha, Jackson, Logan, Monongalia, Raleigh and 10 other counties.

Fayette’s plan was to consolidate four high schools into a new one that would contain about 1,550 students. It would be built in the Oak Hill area next to New River Elementary, the current Oak Hill High and the Fayette Institute of Technology. Valley High, in Smithers, would’ve been the county’s only current high school remaining.

Construction of the new high school would allow the Fayetteville, Meadow Bridge and Midland Trail high school facilities to be reconfigured to accept students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, and Oak Hill High to become a fifth-through-eighth-grade school. This would allow the dilapidated Collins Middle — where more than 400 students have been moved out of a condemned building to other schools — to close. The county would’ve also shuttered Ansted Middle School and Ansted, Divide, Gatewood and Fayetteville elementary schools.

Fayette requested $39.6 million over the next three years from the SBA, which distributes general revenue and lottery money for school construction and renovation projects, to supplement $17 million in local funding.

SBA Executive Director David Sneed said his agency had about $57 million to distribute in this year’s annual “needs” grant funding cycle. Finance Director Garry Stewart also told SBA board members Monday that they could only approve no more than $15.6 million in multi-year funding for future years.

That put Fayette’s proposal, which was ranked eighth by SBA staff and needed over $13 million both in next year’s cycle and the year after, in direct competition with Raleigh County. Raleigh, the top-ranked proposal, was asking for $10 million this year and $10 million the next, so both projects couldn’t be funded.

Sneed said the governor’s budget office told SBA staff last week that because the state budget is expected to be cut, the SBA should not assume being able to get approval to sell bonds. Those bonds, which would be paid back with lottery funds, would provide $25 million for the next year’s cycle.

“There are no funds available right now, so it’s another year of the conditions getting worse,” Martirano said after the meeting. He asked for the SBA to develop a plan to move forward by its next meeting, and said the condition of Fayette’s schools are the worst he’s seen in the state.

Twenty counties requested about $141 million in total funds this cycle. That figure includes the full requested amount from some counties that suggested they could accept the money over multiple years.

The sum was previously $148 million, but Sneed said several counties, including Kanawha, offered to reduce their requests and put more local funds toward their projects after their school superintendents’ presentations to the SBA board last month.

The West Virginia Board of Education took control of Fayette schools away from the locally elected school board in 2010. That was after a failed bond election and a state Office of Education Performance Audits report that said the local 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.”

Martirano’s abrupt closure of Collins Middle’s seventh-and-eighth-grade building in January of this year — after the school also saw its band building and gym shuttered due to structural issues in the previous months — fueled an effort to pass the county’s first school building and renovation bond in over 40 years.

If voters had approved the bond’s 15 years of higher property taxes and the SBA had pitched in the up to about $25 million of its own funds that Fayette wanted at the time, the effort would’ve, among other projects, built a new Collins Middle and renovated Midland Trail High to transfer the ninth- through 12th-graders from Fayetteville and Meadow Bridge high schools there. Meadow Bridge High supporters opposed the bond.

Of the more than 7,500 ballots cast across Fayette during the June 13 special bond election, 62 percent were opposed. Turnout more than doubled the amount in the failed bond elections in 2009 and 2001. Still, only about a quarter of voters took part.

A few days later, Martirano named Randolph County Schools Superintendent Terry George as Fayette’s new superintendent. He replaced Serena Starcher, who returned to her longtime assistant superintendent role in Fayette and later, according to media reports, joined the Raleigh County school system.

In September, the state school board voted 6-3 to approve Fayette’s new consolidation plan, which was backed by George and Martirano. Tom Campbell, Beverly Kingery and Bill White voted against the plan after Campbell made a failed motion to amend it to remove Meadow Bridge High’s closure, and White seconded the motion to bring it to a vote.

Later that same month, the SBA board — which had Campbell among its 11 members, and has since added White — shot down the plan, a move that meant the SBA board wouldn’t even consider it for funding this month. At the meeting, SBA board members raised objections to forcing Fayette schools to consolidate despite county voters rejecting the June bond, and at least two members suggested the board should vote against the plan so as not to give Fayette “false hope” of the idea receiving funding.

In a letter sent to the media by the state Department of Education’s spokeswoman, state school board President Mike Green called the SBA board’s move “unprecedented” and unlawful. White criticized Green’s letter, citing it and other Fayette-related issues in an ethics complaint he recently filed against Green.

The Fayette County Commission, members of whom support the consolidation plan, sued the SBA over its vote, and the SBA reversed course and approved the plan, allowing it to be considered for funding. Fayette County Commissioner Matt Wender said it was too early to say whether the commission would launch another suit.