CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Although a consultant has concluded there’s hope for a mediated agreement for Nicholas County schools, the consultant’s first observations also include a lot of warning signs.
Many of the challenges highlighted by Consensus Building Institute highlight trust issues that have become pronounced in Nicholas County over more than a year of debate about how to replace the schools destroyed in the floods of 2016.
“Allegations and accusations of corruption, foul play, rigged processes and rude and demeaning comments abound on all sides,” the consultants wrote after spending time with representatives of all sides during about two weeks this fall.
“Given the visceral sense among most interviewees that they have been treated badly and unfairly, most parties felt that trusting individuals and agencies on the other side would be a major challenge.”
Some suggested a need to hear apologies for what had been said and done in the past, the consultants wrote.
And while each side saw the other as at fault, most did not see fault in their own actions.
“Many parties, while feeling justified in their mistrust of other parties, emphasized that the mistrust directed toward them was without merit and maliciously motivated,” the consultants wrote.
The consultants observed that consolidation opponents felt their voices were not heard or respected by the Nicholas County school board while supporters of consolidation believed the local board was not heard or respected by the state board.
Distrust extended to the Governor’s Office, where Gov. Jim Justice has been a proponent of keeping a school in Richwood, specifying his position in his inaugural address.
“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 consultants wrote.
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 a consolidation plan using 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 this week 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.
During the initial interviews with the consultant, people proposed a wide range of suggestions for the placement of Nicholas County’s high schools.
“Across the board, interviewees expressed high levels of disagreement about the strength and validity of varying options, generally characterizing their own preferred options in a favorable light while minimizing or disregarding other options,” the consultants wrote.
The consultants provided a list of school construction possibilities, noting that they were not in any particular order:
- Construction of a combined middle school/high school in Richwood with full facilities (band room, science labs, auditorium, gymnasiums, etc.). And construction of middle school and high school facilities at the Glade Creek site at Summersville with full facilities.
- Construction of a combined middle school/high school facility in Richwood with smaller or more limited facilities (band room, auditorium, gymnasiums, etc.). And construction of middle school and high school facilities at the Glade Creek site in Summersville with full facilities.
- Construction of a combined elementary school/middle school/high school campus in Richwood. This would forego a school in Summersville.
- Construction of middle school/high school facilities at a site just outside Richwood city limits.
- Construction of middle school/high school facilities near Richwood (e.g. in Craigsville).
- Construction of a Pre-K to 8th grade school in Richwood. High school would be in Summersville.
- Design the new middle school/high school facility in Richwood to be adapted for
possible future transitioning to a combined elementary school/middle school/high school facility or to a combined elementary school/middle school in the case of future population declines.
- Following the construction of a new high school in Summersville, adaptive reuse of the current Nicholas County High School facility as the new Summersville Elementary School.
- Construction of a consolidated middle school, high school, and CTE facility at the Glade Creek site at Summersville. Closure of middle and high schools in Richwood.
The consultants noted that although those they interviewed all expressed desire for a quality education system in Nicholas County, they also disagreed broadly about what that might mean.
Some emphasized the importance of responsible financial stewardship for the county school system. Others emphasized the need to preserve or restore Richwood, economically and socially.
Moreover, each side expressed differing views about the overarching issue of the effects of consolidation.
Those interviewed generally gave higher priority to factors based on their support for or against the consolidation plan, the consultants said.
For example, those in favor of consolidation tended to emphasize the benefits of having a variety of curricular and extra-curricular activities, the importance of certified teachers, and the need for equal access to offerings for all students.
Those opposing consolidation highlighted the value of universal family and community involvement in school, high graduation rates and high rates of participation in extra-curricular activities.
“Interviewees tended to leave out or dismiss the priority factors that did not fit with their existing positions on consolidation,” the consultants wrote.
“Interviewees cited different sources to support their views about the benefits and drawbacks of community schools versus consolidated schools – including trends in the state and country towards or away from consolidated schooling, and academic and applied research findings on these issues.”
There is so much disagreement on so many of the areas that must be decided, the consultants cautioned that the mediation process must include opportunities to inform the community and gain trust, possibly through public workshops.
If trust isn’t built, the consultants cautioned, the entire effort could fizzle.
“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.”