State school board discusses Gilmer County in closed session

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State school board discusses Gilmer County in closed sessio
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

The West Virginia Board of Education spent about an hour in closed session Wednesday discussing issues regarding Gilmer County, which is, alongside Fayette County, one of the two school systems under state control.

State school board President Mike Green, Vice President Lloyd Jackson and Susan O’Brien, executive director of the Office of Education Performance Audits, declined to discuss what was talked about in the closed session.

Relying on personnel exemptions in state open meetings laws, the board members voted to enter the closed session in a voice vote with no nays heard. Gayle Manchin, whose term has technically expired but can serve until the governor chooses her replacement, was the only state school board member absent from Wednesday’s meeting.

The closed session followed a roughly 10-minute presentation from Gilmer schools Superintendent Gabe Devono, who highlighted two consolidated schools that have finished or are nearing completion and school system improvements, like the creation of a preventative maintenance program, truancy diversion programs and added training of secretaries on state and county financial procedures and training on compliance with open meetings laws.

Deputy State Schools Superintendent Cindy Daniel, who oversees the state intervention counties as part of her role, said last month that she’s been working since she took her position July 1 to return Gilmer — the state’s lowest-enrollment county, with about 900 students — to local control.

“I’ve seen tremendous gains in the leadership and progress that both Devono and his staff, as well as the local board members, have made,” she said.

State school board attorney Mary Catherine Tuckwiller said Devono’s report Wednesday was “part of the exit strategy for returning local control.” O’Brien said she expects to have a countywide study completed to report to the state board by May or June, and she couldn’t determine how ready Gilmer is for local control until that review is done.

The state school board, whose voting members are appointed by the governor, took over Gilmer’s school system from its locally elected board in 2011 and still controls finance, personnel and facilities decisions there. Before the takeover, the Office of Education Performance Audits found that board members were in discord, meetings were unproductive and the board wasn’t following state law or state policy.

In 2013, following another Office of Education Performance Audits report, the state returned more control to the local school board. Before July of last year, Gilmer had control over finances that weren’t related to facilities, but Devono said confusion over whether the local school board or the state school board had control over certain finance areas led him to successfully request that the state school board put all financial decisions in the county under state control.

He said there was no single event that precipitated that request, and O’Brien declined to discuss it Wednesday, citing the fact that discussions were then held in closed session as well.

State control has been a continuing source of controversy in Gilmer, which has seen pointed disagreements between Devono, who was appointed by the state to lead the system, and at least two local board members — Carl Armour and Norma Hurley. Both board members have complained of not getting sufficient information from Devono.

Recently, state School Building Authority board members and staff also raised issue with the fact that Leading Creek Elementary — the state’s first inter-county elementary school, built on the Lewis-Gilmer line and opened this school year — had only 60 percent of the 240 students it was planned for due to Gilmer not providing its promised number of kids. Daniel said it was unclear how exactly the 240 number came about, noting planning started years ago, when there was a different Gilmer superintendent and a different deputy state schools superintendent overseeing state intervention counties. But Daniel, Devono and a majority of local school board members are in agreement that Gilmer students shouldn’t be forced to go to a school they don’t want to attend.