School consolidation is almost always controversial and emotional. Proponents see the benefits of new facilities and economies of scale. Opponents lament losing their community school and long bus rides for their children.
Nicholas County is currently in the throes of just such a debate. Richwood High and Middle School and Summersville Middle were destroyed in last year’s flood. The local school board has approved a plan to combine five schools at one campus near Summersville.
Nicholas County and Richwood High Schools would be merged, as would Richwood and Summersville Middle Schools. The county’s vocational school would also be on the new campus.
Most of the consolidation opponents are Richwood residents who want to preserve the schools in their community. They believe the schools are important linchpins as they rebuild following the flood. The Nicholas County School Board believes their consolidation plan makes the most sense because of the declining student population and the cost of replacing the damaged schools.
The State Board of Education has twice rejected the plan with some members contending the local board did not give full consideration to the views of consolidation opponents. The local board went to court, claiming the state board has no justification for rejecting its consolidation plan.
Both sides spent all day Tuesday in front of Kanawha Court Circuit Court Judge Duke Bloom making their cases. The question Bloom has to decide is whether the local board or the state board has final say. The answer is not immediately clear.
The State Supreme Court took up a similar case in 1990. In Kanawha County Board of Education v. The West Virginia Board of Education, the State Supreme Court ruled that the State Board is empowered to approve or disapprove a county school consolidation plan.
However, that power is not unlimited. Justice Tom Miller, writing for the majority, referenced the Handbook on Planning School Facilities that said the State Board cannot overrule the county board “unless the proposal does not comply with the education and facility standards established by the State Board, or the county board has not complied with procedural requirements.”
So according to the late Justice Miller, the State Board does trump the local board, but it cannot act in an arbitrary manner.
Governor Jim Justice has injected himself into the controversy, starting with his statement during the State of the State address last February. “I hope and pray that we end up with a school in Richwood,” he said. Additionally, former State School Board nominee Barbara Whitecotton believes her name was withdrawn because she appeared to favor the Nicholas County School Board’s plan.
It’s understandable that Richwood wants to keep its schools. However, voters elected the local school board to act in the best interest of the community. If the State Board can arbitrarily supersede the local board, then the concept of local control for schools is just an illusion.
If Nicholas County strongly objects to their school board’s decisions, the voters can send them on their way in the next election. The voters have no such option with the State Board.