CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A consultant tasked with assessing whether there’s potential for compromise on Nicholas County schools construction is recommending a more formal mediation process.
The consultant estimates the entire process laid out might take about three to six months.
The recommendations by the Consensus Building Institute, which met over a couple of weeks with all sides of the schools consolidation dispute, were released today.
“There is a need, and potentially an opportunity, for the West Virginia State Board of Education and the Nicholas County Board of Education to reach agreement on a mutually acceptable plan for how to rebuild the schools destroyed by the 2016 floods,” the consultants wrote.
Consensus Building Institute concluded that the two sides actually share many interests and goals — foremost the educational attainment of local students.
“In order to reach a negotiated resolution, however, both parties will need to take seriously the central concerns of the other — particularly, preparing for the long-term economic sustainability of the county’s schools and retaining the cultural and economic viability of the City of Richwood,” the consultants wrote.
The non-profit organization laid out a recommended path forward that would include a formal process for collaboration between the state Board of Education and the Nicholas County Board of Education.
The consultant also recommends steps to keep citizens involved and informed in an effort to minimize distrust.
“The current polarization within Nicholas County over pro- and anti-consolidation views has fractured the community,” the consultants wrote. “If not addressed, this discord will likely impede efforts to effectively implement any plan, no matter what decisions are made.”
The situation 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.
The dispute then went through the courts system, ending at the state Supreme Court, which said the sides should go back to the drawing board.
The path to mediation began soon after that with both sides agreeing to start exploring a conflict management approach. The report distributed on Tuesday was the first step in that process.
The consultant recommends the two sides formalize the mediation process, choosing an experienced, neutral mediator acceptable to all parties.
Parties participating in the mediation would include the Nicholas superintendent and one or two local board members, the state superintendent and one or two state board members.
The consultant also recommends representation from each of the county’s affected schools and communities.
The participants would be tasked with several decisions:
- Decide which FEMA funding program to use.
- Determine locations, expected enrollment, approximate building footprints, amenities, extracurricular, athletic and vocational facilities and overall functions of the facilities.
- Consider and plan for a range of potential future enrollment scenarios, as well as future facility and educational needs countywide.
- Settle on related matters such as cost and criteria analysis.
The consultant recommends gaining some key commitments from the outset.
It suggests gaining a commitment from FEMA to extend the deadline for a type of financing referred to as 428, which allows pooling grants for several projects into one or a few.
FEMA’s deadline to use that money, already extended once, had been Dec. 26.
The consultant also suggests gaining commitment from Nicholas County to hold off on scheduling any bond votes for the period of the mediation process. The county was considering a bond vote to pay for school construction costs, but leaders made recent public statements about holding off.
It recommends gaining commitments from the state board to hold off on any potential takeover of the Nicholas County school system during the mediation process. Some Richwood residents have pleaded for a takeover, but state board members have declined.
And the consultants recommend gaining a commitment from the Governor’s Office to avoid any interventions while the mediation is going on — as well as a commitment to support whatever compromise results.
Governor Jim Justice has been supportive of keeping schools in Richwood, and his influence has been one of the underlying issues throughout the debate over Nicholas schools.
“Some interviewees noted a concern about the role of the governor’s office, with a fear that office might be pulling strings from outside the room,” the consultant wrote.
As soon as possible, the consultants recommend, informal talks should begin.
That seems to have started already. Representatives of the state board and the county board have met a few times over the past weeks, with both sides generally describing progress. The most recent meeting was last week.
The next step would be to convene more formally. The consultant suggests convening a negotiation team for a one- to three-day meeting.
“This kick-off might include travel together to key locations in the county, such as Glade Creek, the (career and technical education center) in Craigsville, the City of Richwood and the roads and routes between them,” the consultant wrote.
“Extensive preparation by the mediator and parties prior to this session would be essential to reaching clear direction on process in this initial meeting.”
The consultant then recommends detailed briefings on key topics and the exploration of options. The options would be considered in private meetings over a day or two.
Public workshops around Nicholas County would be a way to share initial ideas.
“One risk of holding confidential negotiations is the continued and potentially escalating mistrust of parties from some members of the public,” the consultant wrote.
“Holding community workshops during the fact-finding phase and before finalizing an agreement can help to assure community members that the negotiations are being conducted fairly, deliberatively and in good faith.”
The negotiators would come back together to private meetings to seek final agreement.
The consultants say this might take place at one multi-day meeting or several half-day to one-day meetings with time in between for reflection and confirmation with official boards.
The officials on both sides have signaled willingness to compromise in recent weeks.
“I plan to present the Nicholas County board with some options to consider,” Nicholas Superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick said during a recent meeting.
“I’m not saying it will be the plan that you have approved, but I’m also not saying it won’t be the plan that you haven’t approved.”
Burge-Tetrick said the outcome is likely to not please everyone.
“All I can say is what I present in the future will be reasonable and acceptable, but it will probably make people on both sides mad,” she said. “But that’s usually the best way to gauge you are doing something right.”
This week on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” state Superintendent Steve Paine described a possible imminent resolution.
“I have a very strong level of confidence that we will have a school configuration in Nicholas County that’s best for those students that are in Nicholas County — comprehensively all the students,” Paine said.
“I know that both sides will probably have to give a little bit, but I am very confident.”