New leader to recommend steps after failed Fayette bond

By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer

State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano hopes this week to name Fayette County new schools superintendent, who will recommend how the beleaguered county should move forward in the wake of Saturday’s failed bond election.

Betty Jo Jordan, Martirano’s executive assistant, said the county won’t know its next steps until the new leader takes over, hopefully by the start of the 2015-16 fiscal year on July 1.

In an attempt to solve Fayette’s persistent issues in academics, facilities and other areas, the state school board took over control of county schools in 2010, the year after the last failed bond attempt.

“The new superintendent would have to assess what the possibilities are, the realities of the facilities and what they’re capable of providing in terms of education,” Jordan said.

When asked why Martirano will wait on the new hire to make recommendations about a district the state took over years ago, Jordan said he could choose a leader that already has intimate knowledge of the district. Regardless, she said the state school board and Department of Education lacks sufficient information to move forward on their own, and need a day-to-day, “boots on the ground” leader in Fayette to help.

Current Superintendent Serena Starcher, who received praise from bond supporters at past state school board meetings, is leaving the position to return to her longtime associate superintendent role, reported the Register-Herald.

The $38.9 million in bond debt voted down Saturday could have allowed the county to fund a new Collins Middle School — which Martirano ordered closed in January because of structural issues, sending about 400 students to county high schools. The bond would have provided portable classrooms to allow the displaced students to return while construction progressed.

Of the more than 7,500 ballots cast, 62 percent were opposed to the bond. Turnout was more than double failed bond elections in 2009 and 2001, and the margin was closer.

The millions from bonds would’ve been supplemented by at least $2.5 million in local funds and up to $25.1 million in state School Building Authority money. Scott Raines, the SBA’s architectural services director, called the bond election’s failure “unfortunate,” and said he can’t imagine the SBA’s voting members providing money to Fayette County.

“I can’t think of the authority giving that type of money without some local participation,” Raines said. “I’ve been here a dozen years and I can’t think of it happening.”

He said the $25.1 million from the SBA would have been given over at least three years, if approved by. State law requires the SBA to judge whether the projects that counties request funding for are efficient uses of SBA money, which comes from state general revenue and lottery funds.

“To me, they don’t want that new middle school,” Raines said. “And I think that’s the message they sent to the authority.”

The Legislature cut $8 million from SBA funding during this year’s session. The agency is considering postponing the usually annual disbursement of its “major improvement program” grant funding until March 2017, and Raines said the significantly larger “needs” fund will have about $45 million to $50 million each year for the foreseeable future. SBA Executive Director David Sneed has said counties request $150 million to $200 million in project funding each year from the SBA.

Raines said he expects in December to see requests to help fund seven to eight new schools across the state, and the 55 counties’ most recent 10-year Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plans identify almost $3 billion worth of needs — “and Fayette County is just a small portion of that.”

Much vocal opposition to the bond election came from those who supported preserving Meadow Bridge High School, a small school near the Summers County line. The bonds would’ve funded the renovation and expansion of Midland Trail High School, about 25 miles north of Meadow Bridge High, to assimilate Meadow Bridge’s roughly 175 ninth- through 12th-graders. The state Office of Education Performance Audits has raised concerns about Fayette’s abnormally large number of high schools compared to its student enrollment.

Despite the bond election’s failure, the county could still close Meadow Bridge High with state approval, as it has closed other schools in the wake of the previous bond failures. District Treasurer Paula Fridley said the current Midland Trail High is already large enough to accept the Meadow Bridge students. Department of Education General Counsel Heather Hutchens said that if the new Fayette superintendent, in consultation with Martirano, decides to proceed with the closing, there will be public hearings before Martirano states whether he approves of the consolidation, and the state school board will ultimately have to sign off.

Barry Bruce — the Lewisburg attorney representing Meadow Bridge Citizens for Community Schools, who has helped defeat past attempts to close the school — said he plans to meet with district officials later this week to see if they plan anything going forward. Fayette officials didn’t answer the Gazette’s calls Monday.

Bruce said he’s moving forward with a lawsuit against the district for not allowing the Meadow Bridge group a second opinion on Charleston-based ZMM Architects & Engineers’ inspection that found problems with the wooden supports for the second floor of Meadow Bridge High. That floor – which had four classrooms and library – was deemed unfit for occupancy or storage and abandoned.

The group wants to send another firm in to do an inspection and estimate a cost to possibly fix the problem. Bruce argues the district made an “arbitrary and capricious” decision to close the floor without sufficient information.

“They don’t have that information and they don’t want to get it, and they don’t want to allow us to get it,” he said. “And my clients are taxpaying citizens of Fayette County.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.