Fayette among many counties seeking funds to fix school buildings

By Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter

Braxton County’s only high school retains the original main breaker from its construction in 1967; parts for it are no longer available, and “welding fabrications” keep the device running.

“Recently, when a wind storm broke in half four electrical poles near the school, the main breaker was shut off, and three different electrical contractors could not make it operable,” the county wrote in its request to the state School Building Authority for funding. “Eventually, word came that a retired welding instructor might be able to get the school open, and by the Grace of God, he was still available and still remembered what to do.”

According to its funding request, Pocahontas County has “serious concerns about the health of our students and employees” at Marlinton Elementary, which is in the flood plain and was greatly damaged by major floods in 1985 and 1996.

“An existing mold issue constantly fuels these concerns,” the county stated. “For several years, we have fielded concerns from the community about the condition of the school and had to address the fact that absenteeism in that school is affected by the number of days that students and faculty members are ill.”

“One entire wing of the school consists of modular-type construction with a failing roof,” Jackson County wrote in its funding request, referring to a part of Ravenswood Middle that was added as a “temporary” wing in the 1968-69 school year. The county says the roof cannot be replaced because of a lack of structural integrity, and wants money to move the middle school partially into classrooms of Ravenswood High, add more middle school classrooms on the high school campus and do other renovations.

“The existing school — while maintained as well as any 90-year-old building can be — cannot meet the safety and curriculum specifications that students deserve,” Mercer County stated in its request for money to replace Ceres Elementary, which sits 14 feet back from a busy road, experiences electricity brownouts almost daily and has no computer lab, gym, performance area or fire sprinkler system. Restroom doors aren’t wide enough for students in wheelchairs to pass through.

“In fact, it is hard to overstate the inadequacy of Ceres Elementary School,” the county stated.

These are among the 20 counties competing for limited dollars from the SBA in this year’s annual “needs” grant fund cycle. Others include Kanawha, which is still seeking funds for Andrews Heights Elementary; Logan, which wants to replace the circa 1935 East Chapmanville Elementary, where floors are bowing; and Tucker, which wants to change the fact that most classrooms at the only high school have neither air conditioning nor windows, creating security concerns when doors are kept open to keep classes cool.

The board members of the SBA, which distributes dollars raised from both state general revenue and lottery funds, are expected to choose which counties to fund on Dec. 14. Among the 20 competing counties is one that’s bringing greater attention to the funding process this time: Fayette, which wants money for its controversial plan to consolidate four of its five high schools into a new, over $50 million school.

For constructing the new, 1,550-student Oak Hill-area high school that would set this consolidation in motion, Fayette has requested $39.6 million from the SBA. Though the county has requested that amount over three years, SBA Executive Director David Sneed said the SBA, created in 1989, has never put that much money into a single project before. SBA staff estimate the project will affect about 4,300 students, by far the most out of this funding cycle.

The existing Fayetteville High, Midland Trail High and part of Meadow Bridge High would be reconfigured to become pre-kindergarten through eighth grade schools, and Oak Hill High would become a fifth through eighth grade school. That would allow Collins Middle — where more than 400 students have been moved out of a condemned building to other schools — to completely close, along with Ansted Middle and Ansted, Divide, Gatewood and Fayetteville elementary schools.

Fayette parents and teachers repeatedly show up at meetings of the state Board of Education, which took over Fayette’s school system in 2010, to urge the board to fix the situation at Collins Middle and other schools. Meadow Bridge High supporters have fought against the consolidation and have filed a lawsuit to get a second opinion on an inspection that concluded their school’s second floor should be abandoned due to structural issues.

The consolidation plan, backed by State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano, has also led to pointed public disagreements among state school board members, who in September voted 6-3 to move forward with the plan. The SBA board originally voted to not even allow it to be considered for funding before reversing course earlier this month amid a Fayette County Commission-supported lawsuit arguing the vote was illegal.

Last week, State Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, sent a letter to Martirano, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and SBA board members thanking them for reconsidering the consolidation plan and offering the Legislature’s help to “alleviate concerns that the SBA may have” about longer transportation times for students.

Though counties’ requested SBA funding amounts are still in flux, the next-highest request this year, according to application documents reviewed by the Gazette-Mail, is the $20 million Raleigh County wants to build a new elementary school and do renovations and additions to Shady Spring High School. Raleigh, which says it could accept the SBA money over two years and would almost match the amount with local dollars, says the new elementary could allow for closing Crab Orchard, Lester and Sophia-Soak Creek elementary schools, which were built from 1947-1965 and all have declining enrollment, no fire sprinkler systems and other issues. The county says Lester, which has only a 47 percent building utilization rate, was cited for having elevated levels of radon gas, a problem that’s currently requiring a special ventilation system to control.

The school system expects Shady Spring High to add another 100 students over the next three to four years, and anticipates adding four more trailer classrooms to its current dozen before the start of next school year. Raleigh has proposed adding general and science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics classrooms to the school, along with other renovations.

How much funding the SBA will have available to distribute is unclear. Sneed said he expects to have $52 million to $55 million, but he hasn’t heard anything “definitive” about a possible budget cut this year. Last session, the state cut $6 million from the “needs” funding pot, the first time a cut has happened.

“So, we’re a little reserved,” Sneed said.

While he said the counties have requested about $148 million total this year, that figure includes the full request for counties that have asked for multi-year funding. Those include counties with the three largest requests: Fayette, Raleigh and Pocahontas. Sneed said the SBA is also getting letters every day from counties offering to put more local money into their projects.

Kanawha, for example, is now offering to pitch in $1.2 million instead of only $700,000, dropping its SBA request from $2.2 million to $1.8 million to help remove the four trailer classrooms at Andrews Heights and add a large innovative room with different zones for activities like reading and science experiments in which four teachers will jointly instruct fourth and fifth graders.

Sneed said Pocahontas, which has asked for $17.9 million to supplement $900,000 in local funds, is now planning to ask voters in May to raise property taxes to put another $5 million in local money toward its project. That could mean the SBA board may give the county only a “reserve grant” of $100,000 this year, then award Pocahontas its first major funding next year if voters pass the excess levy.

Pocahontas wants to close Marlinton Elementary, move students to Marlinton Middle, add classrooms there and do renovations, and move seventh and eighth graders from Marlinton Middle and Green Bank Elementary-Middle School to Pocahontas High, which has only a 47 percent utilization rate and also needs renovations, though the county isn’t currently requesting funds for those. The county says that, alongside visible mold, water has entered walls and floors at Marlinton Elementary where mold cannot be treated, causing asthma and related breathing problems. Green Bank Elementary-Middle, which the project would also renovate, currently only has air conditioning in its library and computer lab and has sewer, electrical and fire alarm issues.

SBA staff say they’re still deciding which projects to recommend most to the SBA board — Sneed denied a reporter’s request to observe one of the discussion meetings — but the board could choose to not follow the recommendations. Sneed said Fayette won’t be ranked at the bottom of the list, but also said he didn’t know whether its needs are the highest in West Virginia.

“Yeah it is a bad situation,” he said. “But there are a lot of bad situations out there.”

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