Fayette County schools imbroglio divides the communities, officials

By Sarah Plummer Register-Herald Reporter

Fayette County schools imbroglio divides the communities, officials

Register-Herald file photo Fayette County Schools Superintendent Dr. Serena Starcher, far right, addresses a packed auditorium at Oak Hill High School during a community forum on the status of the Collins Middle School situation.

Fayette County residents can agree on one thing — something must be done to fix the county-wide school facility crisis.

Disagreements that go back decades over how best to remedy the problems continued throughout 2015. Those disagreements now encompass the community, local board of education, the State Board of Education and the West Virginia School Building Authority.

 From retired residents to elected officials, everyone seems to have a better plan, and the common thread among all these ideas is the steadfastness to which their creators cling.

Because of this infighting and the deplorable conditions many of the county’s students face each day, Fayette County Schools is The Register-Herald’s No. 1 story of 2015.

The erosion of county school structures could no longer be ignored when the two-story structure at the Collins Middle School campus was deemed “unsuitable for occupancy” on January 12th, 2015.

Shocked parents packed into informational meetings held in Oak Hill to find out ask, “How could this happen?” and “Where will my child go to school?”

Four hundred students were displaced from the campus and housed at two neighboring high schools. Around 400 fifth and sixth graders remain on campus, and an old shop building was renovated into a band room, gym and cafeteria, although meals are still prepared at New River Elementary and sent to Collins Middle.

Within days after the structure closed, parents demanded immediate action and a permanent solution.

“It is going to take three to five years to build a new school. Our middle school students can’t wait three to five years. You can’t have eighth grade here, seventh grade here, and fifth and sixth grade in a building that should be condemned,” said Chad Evans at a Jan. 13 meeting meeting where 400 parents crowded into the Academy of Careers and Technology.

Some parents, like Chastity Higginbotham, said children should not be returned to a campus where some of the structures have been deemed unsuitable.

At the request of citizens and the local board of education, all buildings owned by Fayette County Schools were inspected by a structural engineer from ZMM Architects and Engineers. As a result of those inspections, one classroom at Mount Hope Elementary and the second story of Meadow Bridge High School were deemed unsuitable for occupancy.

On Feb. 23, a heavy snowfall caused a freestanding band building to collapse at Collins Middle School.

The State Board of Education directed interim Fayette Superintendent Dr. Serena Starcher to develop a bond call based on the 10-year Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan reviewed by a 50-member community committee just months earlier.

That bond, developed with the School Building Authority and bond council, sought $38.9 million to leverage $25.1 million from the authority. The bond aimed to build a new Mount Hope Elementary and Collins Middle School. Renovations were proposed for Midland Trail High, which would house Fayetteville and Meadow Bridge high schools.

The bond would have also provided funds for an athletic field at Valley High School.

Weekly informational meetings were held in every area of the county and Dr. Starcher attended to answer questions posed by the community.

The proposed bond had more community support than ever before, but it also had great opposition.

Pamphlets developed by bond opponents were distributed and mailed across the county. Some were placed in Register-Herald newspaper boxes in violation of West Virginia Code 3-8-12(m) and others incorrectly indicated they were written by the West Virginia Department of Education.

Both advocates and dissenters argued their points at meeting after meeting on both the local and state level, and as the election drew near, tensions grew as rallies, protest marches and candlelight vigils were held.

The bond failed, receiving 38.1 percent support, the greatest support for a bond call since a bond last passed in Fayette in 1974.

Typically special elections see a voter turnout of 10 percent, but the June 13, 2015, bond election saw 26.5 percent.

Fayette County Schools, under state control since 2010, received newly appointed superintendent Terry George weeks later, and he quickly assess the district’s facilities and developed a plan in order to seek NEEDs funding from the School Building Authority for major capital improvements.

George proposed a two-school county plan with a large consolidated high school in Oak Hill to house Oak Hill, Fayetteville, Midland Trail and Meadow Bridge high schools. Collins Middle would move to the current Oak Hill High.

The State Board of Education met before 500 citizens in Oak Hill on September 8 to hear public comments on the large consolidated high school. Forty-two residents spoke, 15 of whom were in opposition to the plan.

At that time, opponents said they supported consolidating schools along U.S. 19, but asked for Meadow Bridge to be left out of the plan. They insisted the school is isolated and bus rides to Oak Hill would be inequitable and too long for their 160 students in grades 9-12.

The State Board of Education voted to approve the amendment to Fayette’s Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan and allow them to pursue funding for the large consolidated school, but the board itself was divided on the issue. Those on the state board who opposed the plan expressed concern about closing Meadow Bridge High.

At their September meeting, the School Building Authority rejected the amendment after discussing the merits of school realignment and potential for a local money match. This decision was made before George had the opportunity to submit an application for funding.

The authority’s decision — the first time they have rejected a facilities plan amendment since their inception in 1989 — shocked officials and Fayette County residents alike. Pressured by the community, the State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Michael Martirano, the State Board of Education and a lawsuit filed by parents and the Fayette County Commission, the authority reversed its decision and agreed to hear Fayette County’s application for funding.

Now gaining attention from statewide media outlets, elected officials visited and toured Fayette County Schools, exposing health concerns at several schools and the fear that another facility failure was looming.

On an Oct. 30, 2015, visit to Fayette, Dr. Martirano said Fayette needed both a longterm solution as well as an immediate one.

“We have to continue to do everything we can to keep things together,” he explained. “Equipment past its life expectancy, mold and mildew, water leakage, temporary electrical systems — those things can fail, and how do we respond to that? We still have to address the immediacy of the system failures.”

According to George, Mount Hope Elementary, Fayetteville Elementary, and Ansted Middle schools were of major concern, in addition to the remaining fifth and sixth grade building at Collins Middle.

In November, the School Building Authority grilled George for more than an hour on the details of the consolidation plan. Unlike other presenters who were asked one or two questions for clarity, George submitted to dozens of questions as authority members presented contradicting information they’d received from community members.

The project sought $39.5 million from the authority over three years with $17 million in a local match.

The School Building Authority failed to fund Fayette’s project despite Dr. Martirano’s insistence that Fayette had the worse system-wide facility concerns in the state and the State Board of Education passing a resolution indicating Fayette County should receive priority funding while under state control.

The authority cited community disagreements over the plan and the lack of input by the School Building Authority staff into the plan as reasons for its rejection.

A lot has happened over the last year but little has changed to improve the school system. Students and parents are still left wondering what’s next for students.

Meadow Bridge residents continue to wait as a lawsuit seeking a second structural inspection of their second story has been filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court. Meanwhile students lack access to the school library and experience overcrowding without access to the school’s second floor.

Displaced Collins Middle students are housed in every available space in Fayetteville and Oak Hill high schools. Math students are taught along side band students in the Oak Hill High gym.

 

Mount Hope Elementary students get rained on inside their classrooms and cooks at Ansted Elementary continue to wrap their utensils in plastic to keep off the coal dust.

“I fear the buildings surrounding me will collapse and hurt someone,” said Collins sixth-grader Eden Gilkey at the October 2015 State Board of Education meeting. “You adults have stripped me of my right to an equal education.”

“These crumbling buildings are crumbling the hopes and dreams of the children who are stuck in them. Please don’t hold our children hostage because people in this county can’t get their act together,” Parent Erica Stewart asked state officials.

The School Building Authority will come to Fayette County in January 2016 and work with school officials and community members to develop Fayette County’s third official plan over the past year. This plan is expected to again be presented for funding in Dec. 2016.

The district hopes to submit a funding application for Major Improve Project grant for portable classrooms. These grants fund projects between $50,000 and $1 million and will be allocated in June 2016.

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