School Building Authority reverses decision on Fayette consolidation plan

by Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter

In a voice vote with no nays sounded, the state School Building Authority’s board agreed Monday to reverse its September decision to shoot down Fayette County’s latest school consolidation plan.

The board’s approval of the plan will allow the Fayette school system to compete with other counties for SBA money for its proposed new high school, which, with a price tag of more than $50 million, would combine Fayetteville, Meadow Bridge, Midland Trail and Oak Hill high schools. Valley High, in Smithers, would be the only existing Fayette high school preserved.

Board members of the SBA, which distributes dollars raised from both state general revenue and lottery funds, are reviewing counties’ school construction and renovation funding requests today and Tuesday, when Fayette will present its case. The board plans to vote next month on which counties’ projects to fund. Scott Raines, the SBA’s architectural services director, said 20 counties have submitted projects for funding consideration.

Fayette schools Superintendent Terry George has said the consolidated high school would contain 1,500 to 1,600 students and be built in the Oak Hill area next to New River Elementary, the current Oak Hill High and the Fayette Institute of Technology.

The consolidation would allow students from Collins Middle — which State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano ordered to be closed in January because of structural issues, sending about 400 seventh- and eighth-grade students to county high schools and fueling a sense of crisis in the county — to move into the current Oak Hill High building, among several other changes.

But those who support keeping Meadow Bridge High open, including some state Board of Education members, have denounced the consolidation plan. Oak Hill, Fayetteville and Midland Trail high schools are all roughly within an under-15-mile stretch of U.S. Route 19 that crosses the New River Gorge bridge, while Meadow Bridge is about 35 miles southeast of where the consolidated high school would be located.

Fayette is requesting a total of about $39.6 million from the SBA over three years, and the school system plans to pitch in $17 million in local funds.

In September, the state school board voted 6-3 to approve the consolidation plan, which is an amendment to Fayette’s current Comprehensive Education Facilities Plan. Controversy ensued later that month after the SBA board refused to sign off on the amendment, with six of its 11 members voting no.

On Sept. 29, a day after the authority’s vote, state school board President Mike Green sent a letter to the media and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin calling the agency’s move “unprecedented,” “improper” and unlawful. The Fayette County Commission also filed a lawsuit against the SBA questioning the legality of the decision.

State school board members Tom Campbell and Bill White, who are both now also on the SBA board after White took over Wade Linger’s seat Monday, criticized Green’s letter. Campbell and White both oppose closing Meadow Bridge High.

Monday’s vote came after a roughly 45-minute-long closed session that the agenda said was to discuss the lawsuit and other issues. Sam Petsonk — an attorney for the nonprofit law firm Mountain State Justice, which was representing the Fayette County Commission in its suit — said the litigation has now come to an end.

“It wasn’t because of the suit, but then it was because of the suit … so this money wouldn’t be tied up and we can fund schools that these kids can benefit from,” Steve Burton said when asked by the Gazette-Mail why he reversed his vote. Burton, an SBA board member who voted against the plan in September, made the motion Monday to reverse course.

“Anybody can tie you up in court, if you’ve got a filing fee,” he said. He said the board felt it made sense to let Fayette’s funding request be heard.

Tom Lange, another SBA board member who also voted against the plan in September but seconded Burton’s motion Monday, said his opinion on whether the consolidation should ultimately be funded hasn’t changed.

“Just give them their day in court, they want their day in court, we’ll give it to them,” Lange said.

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

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