CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When the state Supreme Court ruled against a county government Tuesday in a controversial school consolidation case, the chief justice and the state superintendent each offered expressions of hope the community could come together for a better solution for everyone.
On Wednesday, Richwood residents asked the state Board of Education to take over Nicholas County schools.
Four residents who spoke to the board during the public comment period of a regular state board meeting said they have no other hope outside a school system takeover.
“I implore you — please take control of the Nicholas County school system. Our children cannot afford another day without leadership,” said Richwood resident Jeromy Rose.
Rose also said residents had started a petition in an attempt to have the current Nicholas County school board members removed from office.
“We are not simply asking but following the legal process to have the board members removed from office,” Rose told state board members.
State board President Tom Campbell, after a lengthy executive session, concluded today’s meeting by saying the board had made no decision at all and needs more time to reflect.
“The decision is still fresh. 24 hours, maybe a little bit more,” Campbell told the crowd at the meeting. “We do want to tell people we’ve heard the voices of Nicholas County. “We’ve asked our legal team to digest the decision.”
In a discussion after the meeting with reporters, Campbell said his personal opinion is he doubts there will be a state takeover of the school system. He said his preference is to collaborate with the county board.
A delegation of citizens asking the state board to take over its county school system seemed like a twist. More often, citizens speak up to maintain local control over their schools.
Members of the state board listened on Wednesday but offered no indication one way or another if they would really consider a Nicholas takeover.
Last year, Boone County schools narrowly avoided a takeover by cutting employee pay and benefits in order to balance its budget.
Also last year, the state board returned local control to the Gilmer County school system, which was taken over in 2011. This year, the state returned control to Fayette County, which was taken over in 2010. That marked the first time since 1998 that no county systems were under state control.
One of the speakers from the Richwood area, Stacy Raffo, said she believes a takeover is actually the only remaining avenue to heal the county. Raffo said she also intends to run for the county board in the next election.
“For the Richwood residents and for the people of the Richwood school district, we just have faced 15 months of frustration. It’s not something that we take lightly. However, I think most of us agree that we can’t move forward with the current administration and leadership that we have,” Raffo said. “We don’t have a whole lot of options, so we’d appreciate the state board intervening.”
In an interview during a break in the meeting, Raffo said that despite the wishes of cooperation from prominent state leaders that sentiment seems unlikely to take root. Her daughter Quinn, a freshman at Richwood High School, also addressed the state board.
“History is the greatest indicator of the future,” Raffo said, laying out complaints over decisions by Nicholas Superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick. “Given that, I think it’s hard for us to believe that we can move forward with open communication and dialogue. There’s nothing we want more than to find a compromise and begin working together in our county. However, as many of us said today we just feel like we may be too far gone for that without outside help.”
The state Supreme Court unanimously on Tuesday ruled in favor of the state school board. The board had previously blocked a Nicholas County consolidation plan and then was challenged all the way through West Virginia’s court system.
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.
In reversing Bloom, Supreme Court justices wrote that they recognized the swirling and difficult emotions surrounding consolidation.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry on Tuesday issued a concurring opinion, saying the ruling should not be construed as a victory for the Richwood residents who fought the Comprehensive Educational Facility 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.
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.”
State schools Superintendent Steve Paine released a statement Tuesday acknowledging that more work remains to be done and emphasizing cooperation.
“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 Tuesday 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!”