SBA shoots down Fayette consolidation plan

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SBA shoots down Fayette consolidation plan
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

The state School Building Authority on Monday shot down Fayette County Schools’ latest plan to consolidate schools.

This attempt would’ve combined four high schools — Fayetteville, Meadow Bridge, Midland Trail and Oak Hill — into a new one, and allowed students in the dilapidated Collins Middle to move into the current Oak Hill High.

Monday’s divided voice vote to deny Fayette’s request to amend its current building plan, which would’ve allowed it to compete with other counties for SBA funding for the estimated more than $50 million new high school, came after several SBA board members raised issues with the proposed consolidation.

The West Virginia Board of Education approved the amendment 6-3 earlier this month, despite attempts by some state school board members to stop the planned closure of Meadow Bridge High, which had the fewest high schoolers in the county last year, but has a loyal group of supporters who consistently travel to meetings in Charleston to speak against closing the school.

Peter Markham, the SBA board chairman and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s general counsel, said he only counted three people among the 11-member board who voted to approve Fayette’s requested amendment: State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano; state school board member Tina Combs, who joined Monday’s meeting by telephone; and Robert Holroyd. As chairman, Markham said, he votes only to break ties.

SBA members Steve Burton, Tom Campbell, Victor Gabriel, Tom Lange, Eric Lewis and Chris Morris voted against the Fayette plan. It was unclear how Wade Linger, who also joined the meeting by teleconference, voted. Like Combs, Linger is a state school board member who previously voted for the amended plan, but said it was the hardest vote in his seven years on the board, and he hoped there was still some way to save Meadow Bridge High.

SBA board members raised objections Monday over forcing Fayette schools to consolidate despite county voters rejecting a school building and renovation bond that would’ve consolidated schools differently but also closed Meadow Bridge High. That bond, which would’ve raised property taxes, received support from only 38 percent of the roughly 25 percent of registered Fayette voters who voted in June’s special election. Fayette voters haven’t approved a school bond in more than 40 years.

SBA board members expressed concern that neither Fayette’s residents nor its locally elected school board voted for the new consolidation plan.

“Nobody approved this. Not the local board, not the taxpayers. But wait a minute, the state board approved it,” said Gabriel, of Harrison County. “... This is not a dictator board, this is America and this is West Virginia, by gosh.”

“The folks in Fayette County, I don’t believe, are ever going to agree to a plan,” Combs said before the SBA vote.

The state school board took control of Fayette schools in 2010, after a state report 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.”

Terry George, Fayette’s new state-appointed superintendent, created the new consolidation plan in the wake of the June bond’s failure, and Martirano, who appointed George, signed off on it.

“There will be no decision, or any impact that is going to impact kids in a positive way in the near future,” Martirano said when asked about Monday’s vote. He said George and others in Fayette need to “regroup,” though he didn’t yet have specific details about how he plans to move forward.

“My chagrin is based upon the fact that the process stopped today,” Martirano said. “So I’m going to continue to be optimistic as the conversations occur, but the urgency was there to do something sooner than later, and I am disappointed that the process ended today.”

Martirano ordered the closure of Collins Middle’s seventh- and eighth-grade building in January because of structural issues, sending about 400 students to county high schools. With the SBA’s vote Monday, it’s unclear where those students will end up.

Monday’s vote only concerned whether to approve amending Fayette’s building plan to allow it to compete with other counties for SBA grants for its proposed consolidated high school. The SBA distributes dollars raised from both state general revenue and lottery funds.

Burton, of Wayne County, and Lewis, of Jefferson County, both suggested the board should vote against the plan so as not to give Fayette “false hope” that members would approve funding in December.

“I just think it behooves us to be honest and upfront with folks,” Burton said.

Campbell, a Greenbrier County resident and a state school board member who previously voted against the amended plan, got into a tense discussion with George about the plan, which he argued was rushed following George’s appointment as superintendent.

“This is too critical of an issue to rush something through like this,” Campbell said. “You’re changing kids’ lives for generations.”

Campbell also asked Martirano why the state Department of Education isn’t allowing Meadow Bridge High supporters to get a second opinion on the condemnation of the high school’s second floor. Martirano declined to discuss the issue, citing a lawsuit Meadow Bridge supporters have filed over the issue.

George has estimated the planned new high school — which would have about 1,500 to 1,600 students and be built next to New River Elementary, Oak Hill High and the Fayette Institute of Technology — would cost $52 million to $58 million. On Monday, he said Fayette would only need about $13 million annually from the SBA over the next three years, with the county providing about $17 million in local funding, including $11 million from a lease-purchase attempt.

“Our plans are to go back and re-evaluate our situation and begin doing the best we can for the students who are being educated in sub-par facilities,” George said after the vote.

He said it’s “too premature” to discuss whether the county will try passing another bond, though he said the SBA’s message Monday was that it wouldn’t fund any projects not supported by a bond. He said he thinks Fayette residents are “not going to tax themselves for anything.”

“It’s the students who lost here today,” he said.

Also Monday, SBA board members approved policy and job description changes meant to improve SBA employees’ oversight of funded projects, according to Scott Raines, the SBA’s architectural services director.

He said the personnel changes relate to something the SBA has already begun: getting staff involved in reviewing counties’ proposed projects before they submit them for possible funding, in order to ensure the projects meet the considerations, like student travel time, that state law requires the SBA to evaluate when deciding which projects to support. The SBA board voted to explore whether employees’ salaries need to be adjusted, and Raines said SBA staff plan to compare workers’ salaries with pay in other state agencies, and compensation for similar positions in other states, without using an outside firm.

He said a policy change approved Monday will also allow the SBA to hire construction management firms to oversee projects that are relatively complex or expensive or are located in counties where the local school system may not have the ability to adequately supervise the project.

Raines has said architects — paid directly by the counties, not the SBA — have in the past designed school buildings that are thousands of square feet larger than the SBA agreed to fund. He said the construction managers will look out for the SBA’s interests and be involved in projects from early in the design process through construction completion. They’ll work to ensure better coordination among contractors working on different issues, like plumbing and air conditioning, and keep projects within time and budget. Raines expects they’ll pay for their own fees through cost savings.