Richwood mayor blasts Nicholas school board’s consolidation lawsuit

Jake Zuckerman, Staff Writer

The mayor of Richwood bashed the Nicholas County Board of Education’s lawsuit against the state Board of Education and state schools superintendent Thursday, calling the Nicholas board members “schemers.”

Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber made his comments to reporters outside the West Virginia Capitol building, holding up a copy of Thursday’s edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and pointing at the headline, “Nicholas BOE suit alleges scheme.”

“The irony of this headline is incredible,” Baber said. “The schemers are not the state Board of Education, they said go back and find a different alternative plan that maximizes [Federal Emergency Management Agency] money, the schemers are the Nicholas County Board of Education.”

“I’ll tell you about a scheme — a scheme is the Nicholas County Board of Education trying to loot a flooded town from their two schools, now there’s your scheme, if I’ve ever heard one,” he said.

Thursday’s article reported the Nicholas County Board of Education has filed a lawsuit in Kanawha County Circuit Court against the West Virginia Board of Education and state school Superintendent Steven Paine, claiming the state arbitrarily denied its plan to merge Richwood Middle, Richwood High, Summersville Middle, Nicholas County High and the county’s vocational education center into a consolidated campus near Summersville, using funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the June 2016 flood.

The lawsuit claims several parties improperly interfered with the state board’s decision to nix the consolidation plan. It alleges Gov. Jim Justice’s chief of staff, Nick Casey, and Paine used “back channels” to pressure members of the Nicholas County Board of Education.

The lawsuit also claims U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., called Nicholas County schools superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick to build support for keeping the institutions in Richwood, asking her to “do him a favor.”

In Thursday’s report, a spokesman for the governor denied the allegation against Justice’s office outright. The state school board declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. Manchin confirmed he called Burge-Tetrick, though he did not mention the specific language he used.

Referring to the myriad allegations made in the lawsuit, Baber referred to the legal tactic as a “desperation act” and a “Hail Mary.”
“The Nicholas County Board of Education threw every dart at the wall, they’re getting desperate,” he said.

He went on to call the lawsuit a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“Them using state tax dollars and our tax dollars to make this mess and to continue this mess one year after the flood is a violation of human rights and all human decency,” he said.

When asked what problems he saw with consolidation, Baber said Richwood losing its schools would decimate the town emotionally, elongate students’ commute to school, lower the schools’ educational qualities and detract from athletics and other school-sponsored activities.

In the lawsuit, the Nicholas County Board of Education cites logistical reasons such as cost, the lack of a proper site in Richwood for the schools and travel times as reasons to move the school out. When asked about these, Baber said he doesn’t buy into the “doom and gloom” scenarios.

He said keeping the schools in the community will help the town rebuild, and there is potential for a boom, given low real estate prices and accelerating exchanges of property around town.

“Embrace the future, come on guys, this is West Virginia,” he said. “Let’s step up to the plate and embrace the future of West Virginia, and Nicholas County, you embrace your future.”

Staff writer Ryan Quinn contributed to this report.

Reach Jake Zuckerman at jake.zuckerman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.