2 Gilmer board members resign as school system freed from state control

GLENVILLE — Gilmer County’s locally elected school board will at least nominally regain control of the county’s public school system Monday, but two of the five board members have called it quits.

Board members Carl Armour, Norma Hurley and Robert Minigh voted Thursday to approve the memorandum of understanding the state Board of Education required them to sign to regain local control.

“It means the return of democracy to Gilmer County,” Hurley said. “It means that the elected representatives of the people will be able to do the job they were elected to do, and that’s very important.”

They then approved the resignations of the two absent board members: Tom Ratliff and Bill Simmons.

Ratliff’s wife said he wasn’t home Thursday evening.

Even though Simmons told the Gazette-Mail Thursday he disagreed with the return of local control at this time, he said it wasn’t the reason for his resignation, which he said he believes he submitted in early November.

He said his wife died in September, and he now wants to use his background in higher education — he was president of Glenville State College for 21 years, among other education roles — to help train teachers for today’s classrooms.

The board members present at Thursday’s meeting said they weren’t aware until the meeting began that Ratliff and Simmons had submitted their resignations.

The December state Office of Education Audits report that recommended returning local control to Gilmer noted that one unnamed board member said “resignation from the board is a possibility if local control is reinstated and improvements are not made.” Simmons said he wasn’t that member.

Gabe Devono, Gilmer’s state-appointed superintendent who opposed the return of local control and has fought with some Gilmer board members in the past, said Ratliff and Simmons sent him resignation letters with no explanation that were effective as of Jan. 1, and he had held off on presenting the resignations to the board until Thursday, in hopes they would change their minds.

Devono said that to his understanding, the remaining board members will have 45 days to pick replacement board members, who will serve until the next election in May 2018, when every seat but Minigh’s will be up for election.

The memorandum of understanding requires the Gilmer board, which will see its powers returned under the agreement, to keep Devono until June 30. Devono said he plans to stay until that date, but doesn’t know whether he’ll apply for a contract extension.

He could leave before June 30 if he and the board mutually agree to part ways. He said his contract, which pays him $126,000 annually, expires June 30 anyway.

The MOU, which also wasn’t provided by state education officials to the Gazette-Mail or Gilmer board members until Thursday’s meeting, also puts Gilmer on a three-year “provisional oversight” period.

“If at any time within the three year provisional period the state board determines that intervention in the operation of the school system is again necessary, the state board shall hold a public hearing in the affected county so that the reasons for the intervention and the concerns of the citizens of the county may be heard,” the roughly two-page document states, citing a section of state law.
“However, the state board may intervene immediately in the operation of the county school system with all the powers, duties and responsibilities contained in subsection (m) of this [state law] section,” the MOU continues, “if the state board finds that the conditions precedent to intervention exist once again and that the state board had previously intervened in the operation of the same school system and had concluded that intervention within the preceding five years.”
And, even once fully freed from the special status that’s often dubbed “state control” or “state intervention” in the education world, Gilmer will still be subject to the many state laws and state school board policies all other West Virginia public school systems are subject to. Gilmer had been under state control for half a decade.

Gilmer is the state’s lowest-enrollment public school system, at only about 840 students.

Thursday’s meeting lasted about 30 minutes in a cramped conference room that Devono said was used because it had the teleconference phone where state education officials could call in to discuss the MOU.

Now, Fayette County, with a roughly 6,490 enrollment, is left as West Virginia’s only state-controlled public school system, though the state School Building Authority’s board voted last month to fund a state school board-supported plan for school consolidation.

“Historically, the board in Fayette County has been contentious, demonstrated primarily by the issue of school closures and consolidation,” read an Office of Education Performance Audits report before the Fayette state takeover. “The [OEPA] Team observed that while many small elementary schools had been closed, the high schools remained with the exception of Gauley Bridge High School. A member or members of the board have been unwilling to deal with the very small high schools and support a plan to combine some and improve severe facility deficiencies, limited curriculum, and poorly achieving schools.”
Gilmer itself has seen consolidation while under state control. It’s closed Glenville, Normantown, Sand Fork and Troy elementaries; only a new Gilmer County Elementary, and the intercounty Leading Creek Elementary on the line between Gilmer and Lewis counties, have taken their place.

The state school board decided last month to offer the freedom deal to Gilmer, three years after the state school board voted to return partial control to Gilmer’s board.

The deal came after an OEPA report on Gilmer — based upon an audit conducted on Oct. 27 and 28 of last year — recommended for the first time that the state school board release its hold on Gilmer.

That recommendation was despite the fact that the report noted Devono and two of Gilmer’s five local school board members told the OEPA team that they opposed the return of local democracy to their county. The report didn’t name the specific Gilmer members in opposition.

“The superintendent opposed the ending of the state control, stating that the board remained dysfunctional, politicized, and incapable of functioning as a local board,” the report states. “He stated more time was needed for the treasurer and personnel staff to acclimate to their job responsibilities.”

“The Gilmer County Board of Education is operating well in spite of the still somewhat dysfunctional county board and the poor relationship between some board members and the state appointed superintendent,” the audit concludes.

“Based on evidence and interviews, the OEPA Team found the current local board and state appointed superintendent will not make significant progress in relations regardless of state or local control. Differing personalities, personal agendas, and political pressure will continue to plague the improvement in superintendent/board relations. Unused school property, personnel, and the role of the local board in operations will continue to be a problem for the county,” the audit continues.

“The intention for the initial state takeover of Gilmer County Board of Education was due to improper functioning of the county board of education office,” the audit says. “This issue has been satisfactorily corrected under the state appointed superintendent and central office staff. Therefore, it is the recommendation of the OEPA that full control be returned to Gilmer County Board of Education and allow the county to determine its future operations.”

The audit notes that the Gilmer school system’s personnel department “Stated that return to local control would most likely cause the current superintendent to be removed by the local board,” and stated that it believed “the State Board should maintain control of the local board.”

While the audit notes that workers in Gilmer’s finance and curriculum offices “stated that without a strong superintendent, the board members could revert to micro-management of the system,” these employees also said Gilmer “is capable of self-management and State control needs to end,” that “the community feels that with state control, the school system is not theirs” and “the next [excess property tax] levy vote may fail if the system remains under state control.”

“The board of education office is functioning efficiently and in compliance with State code and [state board] policy,” the audit states. “Student achievement is stable and increasing.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.