Request for second opinion on Fayette schools not getting traction

By Ryan Quinn, Staff Writer

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail file photo The main building of Collins Middle school on Jones Avenue in Oak Hill.

A West Virginia Board of Education member publicly asked for another engineering firm to look at Fayette County’s partially shuttered Collins Middle and Meadow Bridge High, and Meadow Bridge residents sued for one, but the deputy state schools superintendent says the request isn’t the state Department of Education’s responsibility.

State school board member Tom Campbell requested during a board meeting last month that a firm other than Charleston-based ZMM Architects & Engineers analyze Collins Middle and Meadow Bridge High and gauge what it would cost to make them “suitable for occupancy.” Campbell has vocally opposed school consolidations in general and voted last year against a plan that would’ve consolidated Meadow Bridge and three other Fayette high schools.

That state School Building Authority board, which gives money toward school construction and renovation projects and which Campbell is also a part of, chose not to fund that plan, which would’ve allowed Collins Middle students to move into the current Oak Hill High building. SBA staff and the state school board are working together to come up with a new plan the SBA board might approve, and ZMM is currently helping the SBA update its estimated renovation costs for all Fayette schools.

ZMM performed inspections during the winter of last school year that led to the closure of Collins Middle’s seventh- and eighth-grade building — a move that pushed about 400 students into other schools — and the closure of the second floor of Meadow Bridge High. That floor contained four classrooms and a library.

“It may be worse than we’ve been told, it may be better,” said Campbell, who said he’s a “big believer in transparency and independent perspectives.”

“If they go in and confirm [ZMM’s findings], there will be no suspicion,” he said Friday.

He forwarded the newspaper an email from education department officials showing that ZMM had estimated it would cost about $13.8 million to restore Collins’ main building and demolish and replace its “beyond restoration” gym. The email said Mike Pickens, executive director of the state Office of Schools Facilities and Transportation, had estimated other renovations, like replacing the school’s electrical system, would cost $6 million.

According to The [Beckley] Register-Herald, the Fayette school system recently received portable classrooms that will be used to reunite all Collins Middle students until a more permanent solution is found.

Education department officials said Friday they didn’t know whether ZMM employees, who didn’t respond to requests for comments late Friday afternoon, had estimated costs for fixing Meadow Bridge High’s second floor. Carolyn Arritt, a former Meadow Bridge teacher who opposes closing the school and is in the Meadow Bridge Citizens for Community Schools group that’s sued for a second opinion, said a Freedom of Information Act request didn’t turn up a projected repair cost.

SBA Executive Director David Sneed told the Gazette-Mail March 9 — when Campbell publicly made his request for a second review by Terradon, another in-state engineering firm — that the SBA had no way to fund such a review. But Randall Patterson, who’s part of Meadow Bridge Citizens for Community Schools and has two grandchildren in the high school, said the group is willing to pay for another review by any independent engineer that’s not ZMM.

When asked Friday whether the SBA could commission a second review if it were free, Sneed said the SBA can’t direct what happens in Fayette.

“We can’t just go into a county and tell a county — and in this case, the county and the state board — what to do, it’s just not what we do,” Sneed said.

In 2010, the state school board took over control of Fayette schools from the county’s locally elected school board to fix problems the local board allegedly wasn’t addressing. Officials at the education department, which is under the state school board’s supervision, now oversee important Fayette school decisions.

Sneed said Deputy State Schools Superintendent Cindy Daniel called him shortly after the March 9 meeting and he talked to them about Campbell’s request, but Sneed said they expressed “hesitation” due to the Meadow Bridge group’s lawsuit.

“I kind of left it with them at that point in time,” Sneed said. He said he didn’t press the issue because a second review wouldn’t be “normal practice anyway.”

When asked about the issue Friday, Daniel first told the Gazette-Mail to talk to Sneed.

“The request was made to David Sneed and the School Building Authority, not to the West Virginia Department of Education,” she said.

When asked whether the department would be willing to open up the schools for a second firm to do a review, Daniel said “it’s not our responsibility, the request was made to the School Building Authority.”

When pressed further, another department official in the phone interview with the Gazette-Mail — Sarah Stewart, director of policy and government relations — said the issue is “the subject of the litigation and the department is not going to comment on pending litigation.”

Patterson said a judge shot down the suit because he said it was filed in Fayette against the Fayette school system and it should instead be filed in Kanawha County against the state school board. He said the Meadow Bridge group is holding off on refiling to see what the SBA will do.

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