First projects in Fayette consolidation plan funded

Ryan Quinn , Staff Writer

The state School Building Authority’s board voted Monday to provide $22.6 million for the first two major projects of Fayette County’s possibly decade-long school consolidation plan: building a new Collins Middle for that school’s displaced students and a new prekindergarten- through second-grade school in the Oak Hill area.

The SBA board’s vote puts it and the state Board of Education — which has controlled Fayette’s public school system since 2010, when it stripped power from Fayette’s locally elected board members — both publicly behind the same Fayette consolidation plan. Majorities on the two boards were previously divided over the Fayette issue after the SBA board refused last year to support a previous state school board-backed consolidation plan.

The new plan is to drop the number of Fayette public schools from 18 to 11, change various schools’ grade configurations and preserve only two existing high schools, Oak Hill and Midland Trail, although Midland Trail would become a sixth- through 12th-grade school.

The plan says construction of the new Collins and the prek-second-grade school, both intended to open in August 2019, will allow for New River Elementary to be converted into a school for third- through fifth-graders and allow for the closing of Rosedale and Mount Hope elementaries.

Fayette is currently moving forward with adding classrooms to Midland Trail High in order for it to take in Ansted Middle’s students and allow that structurally deficient school to close as planned at the end of next school year, said Fayette Associate Superintendent Gary Hough. In July, the SBA provided $1 million for that effort.

Terry George, Fayette’s state-appointed superintendent, has said the overall consolidation plan is conservatively projected to, starting in the 2019-20 school year, save the system $1.4 million annually compared to today.

He said those savings will help pay down the $11 million worth of school equipment that the school system will essentially rent-to-own.

Regarding the construction of the two new schools, that $11 million is considered part of the $17 million in Fayette-provided funds to supplement the SBA’s $22.6 million. The $22.6 million will be provided over two years.

George said he anticipates closing the Meadow Bridge and Valley high schools at the end of the 2018-19 school year, a move that could lead some students in those schools to transfer to Kanawha County’s Riverside High and Greenbrier County’s Greenbrier West High — if those other counties’ school boards agree to take them.

The state school board took control of Fayette schools in 2010, after a state report said the local board was “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.”

Collins Middle students are now in portable classrooms, instead of their dilapidated building, part of which state Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano ordered closed in January 2015 over safety concerns. That move temporarily sent about 400 Collins students to county high schools and brought more attention to Fayette school facilities issues.
Fayette’s school system held a special election in June 2015 to try to get voters to pass the county’s first school building and renovation bond in more than 40 years.

But 62 percent of participating Fayette voters shot down the bond, which would’ve meant higher property taxes in order to fund a new Collins Middle building along with high school consolidations and other building projects. Only a quarter of registered Fayette voters showed up to the polls.

The state school board then tried to get the SBA board to fund a different consolidation plan: combining Fayetteville, Meadow Bridge, Midland Trail and Oak Hill high schools into a new school with about 1,550 students that would be built adjacent to New River Elementary, Oak Hill High and the Fayette Institute of Technology. Valley High would be the only existing high school preserved, and Collins Middle students would’ve gotten to move into the emptied Oak Hill High building.

But in December 2015, the SBA board refused to fund that plan. SBA board members had raised objections over forcing Fayette schools to consolidate despite county voters rejecting the bond, which would’ve consolidated schools differently but, like the post-bond-election plan before them, still closed Meadow Bridge High.

SBA board members expressed concern that neither Fayette’s residents nor its locally elected school board voted for the post-bond-election plan.

“Nobody approved this. Not the local board, not the taxpayers. But wait a minute, the state board approved it,” said SBA board member Victor Gabriel, of Harrison County. “… This is not a dictator board, this is America and this is West Virginia, by gosh.”

Following the December 2015 rejection, SBA staff and George and his staff worked together to develop the latest plan. In forming the new plan, the SBA staff said they used input on things like desired curriculum features and desired student transportation times from a committee composed of three representatives from each Fayette school: the principal, a member of the school’s community and the chairperson or a representative of its Local School Improvement Council.

But SBA staff, before revealing the consolidation plan, never asked the committee which specific schools should be closed, and actively tried to steer conversation away from that topic. Michael Martirano, the state superintendent, has now informed the SBA board that Fayette — even if it is eventually released from state Board of Education control — will be required to complete the entire, possibly decade-long consolidation plan, including its planned closures of high schools.

State school board Vice President Lloyd Jackson, however, suggested in September that Fayette residents may still be able to avoid parts of the consolidation plan by actually passing a bond.

“My guess is it’s never too late to offer the SBA tens of millions of dollars,” Jackson said.

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