CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State schools superintendent Steve Paine says the Federal Emergency Management Agency has given a favorable impression of extending a funding deadline to build new schools in Nicholas County and a mediator backed by the federal agency and the governor might get involved.
“It’s really important for us to work with the local board of education more than ever right now,” Paine said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.” “I think they can come up with a solution with this mediator in a process being led by the governor and FEMA. I think it will work.”
This past week, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state Board of Education in a consolidation case involving Nicholas County schools, reversing a lower court decision.
That sends the Nicholas consolidation decision back to the drawing board.
The Nicholas County Board of Education next meets at 7 p.m. Sunday in Summersville. A variety of school construction items are posted on the agenda, including “review and discussion following state board action and next steps.”
Paine said he has faith in both the state Board of Education and the local board to cooperate.
“I look forward to the state board working with the Nicholas County board. They’re good people,” Paine said on “Talkline.”
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 -referred to as the “428 plan” — 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.
Meanwhile, a FEMA deadline to draw down federal disaster grant funding — already extended once — is approaching at the end of December.
Paine said he believes the deadline will be extended again, given recent events.
“The governor’s office has requested an extension from FEMA for funding for the 428 plan,” Paine said. “We have favorable indication that’s going to be granted. The governor’s office will release details about that next week.”
Paine also said he anticipates a third-party conflict resolution expert will become involved with the process.
“Actually, that’s a FEMA idea as I understand it. They probably have experience with situations like this before,” Paine said.
“They would bring someone in to work with the community, starting with the board of education, who I deeply respect. They’ll go through some kind of consensus-building process and perhaps bring an alternative that would be suitable to everyone back to the state board.”
Supporters of rebuilding a high school in Richwood this week asked the state school board to take over the Nicholas County school system. Those who spoke at a regular state board meeting said they think that’s the only way to get over the wounds of the past year.
Paine said he thinks a takeover is an unnecessary step that’s not likely to be considered by the state board.
“I respectfully disagree with them,” Paine said of those who spoke in favor of a state takeover. “I think the Nicholas County board can show leadership in resolving this conflict with cooperation. It’s really important for us to work with the local board of education more than ever right now.
“I think they can come up with a solution with this mediator in a process being led by the governor and FEMA. I think it will work.”