CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A short comment during Governor Jim Justice’s State of the State address regarding the murky future of schools in the Nicholas County town of Richwood is drawing both praise and criticism, depending on who you ask.
“One of the flood ravaged towns that I truly believe is coming back, and I can see it just like I can see it tomorrow,” Justice said Wednesday night. “I hope and pray that we end up with a school in Richwood.”
That quickly drew the disapproval of a State Senator.
“I was really disheartened by the Governor’s speech, particularly when he was very adamant about staying out of local issues,” Senator Greg Boso (R – Nicholas, 11) said. “And then he got right into one that’s right in my county.”
The Nicholas County Board of Education is holding a series of public meetings after Superintendent Dr. Donna Burge-Tetrick officially recommended the students from flood-damaged and defunct Richwood High School and Richwood Middle School consolidate with students in Summersville.
“I’m not weighing in one way or the other on whether they should or shouldn’t consolidate,” Boso said. “But, obviously, the Constitution gives the Board of Education that latitude to do what’s necessary to provide for the appropriate education of the children in our communities.”
Conversely, Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber was extremely grateful to Governor Justice and critical of Dr. Burge-Tetrick and Senator Boso.
“It’s a pretty wonderful day when the Governor of West Virginia says that he sees the future and it’s bright for Richwood,” Baber said.
“You just don’t get support like that every day. This is an amazing moment for Richwood.”
Baber was particularly critical of Senator Boso’s decision “not to weigh in” on the consolidation issue.
“You ought to take your cues from the Governor, sir,” Baber said. “Taking no stance is taking a stance.”
“That happens when you have a 1,000 year flood that ravages it, but all kinds of new infrastructure is going to be the result of it,” he said. “And you have a Governor who is going to help you build 30 new homes. You know, we haven’t had a new home built in Richwood in 30 years. Now, we are going to get 30.”
Those homes are a result of work by Justice’s non-profit organization, Neighbors Loving Neighbors, in response to the devastation the town suffered in the June 2016 flooding.
“I think [Justice] really realizes that Richwood is smack dab in the middle of tourist country,” Baber said. “Hills Creek Falls, Cranberry Glades, Cranberry Wilderness, Scenic Highway, and a town that’s got a long and deep, rich history. Festivals and fairs, artists, and housing.”
Baber’s vision is ambitious, but he believes Richwood could one day be known as “The Aspen of the East.”
“There are a lot of people that say if Richwood doesn’t get the schools back, it’s over,” Baber said. “We are going to crawl back. We will. We’re tough. We will never give up in Richwood.”
In addition to Neighbors Loving Neighbors, Baber said Hosanna Industries will build six new houses and renovate 45 others in town.
“As fast as we’re putting ourselves back together–this flooded town–I mean, how?” Baber said. “It’s a shock. This is the nastiest consolidation in not only West Virginia history, but in United States history.”
Three schools in Nicholas County were damaged beyond repair during the June floods–Richwood High School, Richwood Middle School, and Summersville Middle School. Early indications, based on Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid and state contributions, pointed to the rebuilding of schools in Richwood.
“[The Nicholas BoE] used the flood to put consolidation in your plan and take these schools away from us,” Baber said. “That’s beyond outrageous. It’s cruel and unusual punishment.”
Data provided by the Nicholas County Board of Education shows enrollment down by 26 percent since 1991. That’s, roughly, a decrease of 1400 students.
Baber believes that the State School Board of Education will be more sympathetic to Richwood after a number of appointments to the Board by Jim Justice. Ultimately, he thinks the State BoE would reject ratifying a Nicholas County consolidation–if it reaches that point.
“I have a message to the Superintendent and the [Nicholas County] Board of Education, get on board the ‘happy train’ because you’re on a train that’s headed to a mountain that’s going to crash,” he said. “Why would you stay on that train?”
Baber added that, if the State Board of Education did ratify consolidation, the town of Richwood had other tools to continue their bid to see a rebuilt school in the town.
The first public hearing on consolidation is scheduled for Feb. 24 at Summersville Middle School.