CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the state Board of Education in a consolidation case involving Nicholas County schools, reversing a lower court decision.
The state board had voted to block a consolidation proposal reached by the Nicholas County school board. That was blocked by a Kanawha County circuit judge who concluded the state board’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”
And now the circuit judge’s ruling is reversed.
“Without passing on the relative merits of any of the WVBOE members’ testimony, we find that the thoughtful and well-supported rationales offered by the WVBOE members objectively pertain to the feasibility, desirability, and efficacy of consolidation,” Justice Margaret Workman wrote for the court majority.
“Accordingly, we find no basis upon which to cast their reasoning as arbitrary or capricious; rather, their reasoning was unified, well-expressed, and, above all, plainly germane to the wisdom of consolidation and the well-being of the student population. We therefore find that the circuit court erred in concluding that the WVBOE’s rejection of the (Comprehensive Educational Facility Plans) amendment was arbitrary and/or capricious.”
The Supreme Court came back quickly with its opinion. Justices heard oral arguments a week ago today. The Nicholas County board has been on a December deadline to draw down funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its consolidation plan.
The decision was unanimous. Chief Justice Allen Loughry wrote a concurring opinion.
Loughry wrote that the state school board has an overarching duty to ensure a thorough and efficient public school system and that it hadn’t strayed from that duty in rejecting a consolidation plan put forward by the Nicholas County school board.
“To fulfill that constitutional obligation, it must not be improperly hamstrung in the exercise of its lawful authority to ensure that individual counties are both effectively serving its student population and operating in accord with the best interests of the State’s educational system as a whole,” Loughry wrote.
But Loughry said the ruling should not be construed as a victory for the Richwood residents who fought the consolidation plan or as a defeat for the Nicholas County school board.
“What the decision of the WVBOE in rejecting the CEFP amendment suggests, when fairly construed, is simply that there is more work to be done to determine the best solutions for these schools,” Loughry wrote.
State schools Superintendent Steve Paine released a statement acknowledging that more work remains to be done now.
“We remain focused on finding a resolution that meets the best interest of all students in Nicholas County,” Paine stated.
“We look forward to working cooperatively with the citizens of Nicholas County, the Nicholas County Board of Education, Governor Justice, the West Virginia Legislature and FEMA to ensure that all of the students in Nicholas County are educated in quality facilities and have access to the effective and diverse educational opportunities that all West Virginia students deserve.”
Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber, whose current position is in dispute during an investigation over expenses on his state-issued purchasing card, issued a statement that also urged cooperation.
“This is very positive news, yes. Enjoy!” Baber stated, “But be thankful to all that helped, be temperate in your celebration and forgiving to the Nicholas County Board of Education. We need to come back together now. This is decision is good for all the students and for the entire State of West Virginia! I’m overjoyed!”
The issue took shape after devastating floods struck Nicholas County two summers ago, destroying Richwood High and Middle and Summersville Middle schools.
After a series of public hearings, the Nicholas County board decided on its consolidation plan, opting to use an alternative form of Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to pool all flood-recovery money into one pool to rebuild schools.
The local school board voted to combine five schools — Richwood Middle and Summersville Middle Schools and Nicholas County and Richwood High Schools, along with the Career and Technical Education Facility — at one campus in the Summersville area.
The state board twice rejected that plan — expressing concern that local board members didn’t adequately listen to concerns from Richwood residents and that alternatives might exist.
In late August, Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom ruled in favor of the county board and ordered the state board to let consolidation go forward. He concluded that the state board had overstepped its own policies and regulations and was overly swayed by community sentiment.
It was that decision that the Supreme Court reversed.
The Supreme Court ruled that the state board has clear oversight of the educational system through the state Constitution, citing precedent that “the State Board is empowered to take whatever steps are necessary to fulfill its obligation to achieve ‘the constitutionally mandated educational goals of quality and equality.'”
Workman went on to write that state law plainly gives the state board broad oversight authority.
“Therefore, far from the fictitious ‘stand-off’ the circuit court urges as between the Legislature and WVBOE’s respective constitutional charges, the statute itself appears to acknowledge and pay deference to the WVBOE’s expansive rule-making authority in exercise of its supervisory powers.”
The Supreme Court also rejected the argument that the state board’s oversight on consolidation is confined to six criteria set out in its written policy.
“Such a standard is plainly susceptible to semantical games designed to pigeon-hole the entire universe of potential reasons for rejection of very situation-specific plans into blunt categories which are by no means intended to be comprehensive standards for the evaluation of the propriety of school closure or consolidation,” Workman wrote.
“The critically important decision-making involved in protecting our children’s fundamental right to education is antithetical to such gamesmanship.
Loughry’s concurring opinion made conspicuous note of the high achievement of Nicholas County’s current school system.
“Because all of the schools involved—each individually and as part of the Nicholas County school system—are so successful, the respective boards must proceed with all diligence to ensure that such exemplary success is fostered, rather than jeopardized,” Loughry wrote.
The chief justice suggested that as the decisions continue to be made for what is best for Nicholas County students, the optimal outcomes would result through working together.
“As the parties move forward, I trust that they will work cooperatively, diligently, and with alacrity to ensure that the students of Nicholas County receive the educational facilities, programs, and opportunities they deserve and to which they are constitutionally entitled,” Loughry wrote.
The chief justice continued, “I am confident that the parties’ ardently expressed concern for the children’s well-being will lead Nicholas County students to precisely that end.”