WV BOE to vote on Fayette County schools consolidation

Ryan Quinn , Staff Writer

In two instances of déjà vu, the West Virginia Board of Education is set to vote this week on a consolidation plan for Fayette County’s public school system and a policy waiver that will again stop the requirement that teachers be evaluated based on their students’ standardized test scores.

Unlike the last Fayette consolidation plan, though, the new one has the public backing of the staff of the state School Building Authority, although the SBA board doesn’t have to follow its staff’s recommendations. State schools Superintendent Michael Martirano intends to ask the SBA board for funding to carry out the plan, first for building a new Collins Middle and a new prekindergarten-through-second-grade school in the Oak Hill area.

The state school board must approve the larger consolidation plan before the SBA’s board can vote in December to fund those projects, which are expected to require $22.6 million in SBA funds and $17 million provided by Fayette’s school system.

Also, unlike the last two times the student standardized testing portion of teacher evaluations was postponed, federal regulations now no longer require the state to actually ever move forward with basing 15 percent of annual evaluations for math and English language arts teachers on their students’ improvement in exam scores over last school year, said Michele Blatt, the education department’s chief accountability officer.

She said the new waiver, if approved by the state school board, also would stop the current requirement that 5 percent of teacher evaluations be based on school-wide student improvement in test scores, and the department would then convene teachers, teacher union representatives, principals, lawmakers and other interested parties to help develop a permanent new evaluation policy that wouldn’t require further waivers after it takes effect next school year.

If the waiver is approved, 20 percent of evaluations this school year will be based on improvement in “student learning goals” that teachers get to choose and the remaining 80 percent will continue to be based on observations from principals and assistant principals, plus data teachers provide to support what ratings they should receive.

The state school board’s monthly meeting is to begin 10 a.m. Wednesday in Room 353 of Building 6 of the Capitol Complex, in Charleston. If the board’s meeting agenda isn’t finished Wednesday, the meeting will continue at 10 a.m. Thursday, also in Room 353.

In June 2015, the state-controlled Fayette school system failed to receive enough support from county residents to approve higher property taxes in a special bond election.

The higher taxes could have generated $66.5 million for several building projects, including a new building for the Collins Middle students, who then were split among Fayette high schools and the portions of their school that Martirano hadn’t ordered closed because of structural concerns. Now, they are united in portable classrooms in Oak Hill.

After the failed bond election, the state school board voted 6-3 last September to approve a plan to erect a roughly $57 million building to consolidate four Fayette County high schools, meaning Valley High, in Smithers, would have been the only current public high school in the county left operating. Collins Middle students would’ve moved into the vacated Oak Hill High building.

In December, though, the SBA board, which distributes money for school construction and renovation projects around West Virginia, refused to provide funds to build the consolidated high school.
In the wake of the December vote, the state school board and the SBA staff, which had expressed concerns over the previous consolidation plan, partnered to develop a new plan that the school board and the SBA board could both support.

“The SBA has facilitated and been in the lead every step of the way,” said state Deputy Superintendent Cindy Daniel.

As the process was ongoing, the Fayette County Commission, commission President Matt Wender and two parents of Fayette students filed suit against the SBA and the state school board, which took control of Fayette’s school system away from its locally elected board members in 2010, over their alleged failure to fulfill their duties to fix Fayette’s school building and academic issues.

Charleston-based ZMM Architects & Engineers did new building evaluations of Fayette’s 17 regular public schools. And last month, the SBA staff unveiled the new consolidation plan to the Fayette County Capital Planning Committee, which had begun meeting in June and was made up 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.

Among many changes, the new plan would, over the years, drop the number of Fayette public schools from 18 to 11 and preserve only two current public high schools: Oak Hill and Midland Trail, although it would become a sixth- through 12th-grade school.

But there was still objection to that plan from some committee members, including Wender, and Meadow Bridge residents. The new consolidation plan, just like the old ones, includes closing Meadow Bridge High, but it would use the 1977 and ’87 additions to Meadow Bridge High to build a new pre-K- to eighth-grade school for the community.

Four members of Fayette’s school board, even though they weren’t required to give approval because of the state takeover, signed a resolution supporting the new plan. The fifth member, Patsy Holliday, wrote “No! No! No!” on the line for her signature on the document.

Scott Raines, the SBA’s director of school planning and construction, said SBA staff asked the Fayette County Capital Planning Committee members for input on what they and members of the communities they represent want for their students, including wishes concerning curriculum and transportation times. But the SBA staff never asked the committee a question, and actively tried to steer conversation away from the question that has been controversial in Fayette for so long: Which specific schools should be closed, considering the county’s limited funds?

Raines, who said there was little hint of opposition at another committee meeting last week, said SBA employees took the committee’s requests regarding curriculum and other areas to state-appointed Fayette schools Superintendent Terry George and his staff and, together, the two groups worked out a plan to best meet the committee’s wishes, with what the school system could afford. Raines said the plan assumed that Fayette residents would never agree to approve bonds to provide more school facilities dollars.

“The community told us what they wanted,” Raines said. “Terry George and his staff told us how they could provide it.”

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