Early on in the written decision in the Nicholas County School consolidation case, Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Duke Bloom articulates the difficulty of such disputes: “The Court notes the passion, conflicting viewpoints of affected communities, and heart-wrenching nature associated with decisions to close or consolidate local schools.”
West Virginia has had more than its share of these impassioned debates. As the student population has declined and resources tightened, counties have had to make difficult decisions to close and consolidate schools, often over the strenuous objections of affected communities.
The Nicholas County consolidation dispute has been particularly contentious as the communities struggle to determine the best way forward after the 2016 flood damaged Richwood High School, Richwood Middle School and Summersville Middle School. The local board agreed on a plan to combine five schools on one campus near Summersville, even though others in the community wanted to keep the Richwood schools open.
Typically, the State Board of Education approves county consolidation plans if proper procedures are followed, but not this time. The State Board twice rejected the consolidation plan contending, among other things, that the local board did not listen to citizens’ concerns or consider alternative sites.
The local board appealed and last Friday Judge Bloom ruled in their favor, saying the State Board exceeded its authority. “The Court finds it patently unfair to arbitrarily change closure/consolidation requirements after a local board has expended considerable time, effort and resources to comply with promulgated State Board policies,” Bloom wrote.
Interestingly, the Judge also noted Governor Jim Justice’s influence in the State Board’s decision since Justice had made it clear he opposes the consolidation plan. “Board Vice President (Dave) Perry told a friend… ‘Nicholas County was going to lose because that’s what the Governor wants.’”
Bloom writes that such testimony lends support to the argument that the State Board “constructed arbitrary and pre-textual justifications” to reject the consolidation plan.
But this isn’t over.
The State Board meets this morning and consideration of the Judge’s decision is on the agenda. It’s reasonable to expect the members will decide—if not today then soon—to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
There is, after all, a larger question here than just what happens in Nicholas County. Does a local school board or the State Board get the final word on consolidation? The high court may resolve the issue, but the outcome is unlikely to assuage the hard feelings that inevitably accompany consolidation controversies.