WV SBA staff reveal plan to close, consolidate, build Fayette schools

Ryan Quinn , Staff Writer

 

OAK HILL — West Virginia School Building Authority staff Thursday evening revealed a proposal, which they said was composed with Fayette County residents’ input, to fix Fayette school building issues through new construction, consolidations and closures.

But Thursday’s meeting ended with several individuals criticizing what they called a lack of community input into the plan, and there were disagreements between Meadow Bridge residents and some representatives of other areas of the county — mirroring the divisiveness that some Fayette residents and state education officials have for years cited as an obstacle to fixing Fayette’s dilapidated facilities.

Objectors to the plan included Matt Wender, a member of the Fayette County Commission — which is suing, alongside two Fayette parents, the SBA and the state Board of Education over those agencies’ alleged failure to fulfill their duties to fix Fayette’s school building and academic issues. The state school board took control over the county’s school system away from its locally elected school board in 2010.

“This meeting has lasted an hour and a half, I came here assuming it would be two hours, two and a half hours, I don’t understand the big hurry,” Wender said, after Fayette’s state-appointed superintendent, Terry George, said members of the Fayette County Capital Planning Committee could leave the meeting.
“It seems like now, all of a sudden, we’re in a rush, this is the plan, it’s top down,” said Wender, noting it seemed like those running the meeting didn’t want to hear from the committee members, like himself, who were supposedly supposed to form the plan from the bottom up.

George, who said he supports the plan, disagreed. Other state education officials were in attendance, including Deputy State Schools Superintendent Cindy Daniel and state school board member Bill White.

Despite George saying the meeting was over, he and others stayed as some attendees continued to ask questions. One woman asked if the committee had another option to meet again.

“You’re never gonna get to an end doing it that way,” said David Sneed, head of the SBA staff. “We asked you to tell us what was important to you, we asked you to tell us what you wanted in your curriculum. … We’ve brought you back that plan that addresses those things you’ve told us you want. We’re never going to reach a point where everybody is satisfied.”

Leon Ivey, a former Fayette school board member who joined the board about two years before the state takeover and left it in June, defended the SBA staff’s proposal. He noted the SBA board put the committee process in place, and said if the board does its job properly, the board will follow its staff’s advice.

“I think the plan was accurate in what we can financially support,” said Ivey, who was representing Oak Hill High. “There’s parts of the plan I’m not happy with, I don’t think there will ever be a plan that we’re all happy with, but financially for Fayette County, if we do not implement this plan, I think this is our last shot.”

“I think from the committee we gave them what we want for our children, and my understanding of the process is the SBA is an objective group that is looking at the finances and the facilities … they’re not tied to one high school, not tied to one area, but they took what we want, and looked at what we have, and said here’s how we can make that work.”

The plan, presented to about 50 people at the committee meeting at New River Elementary School, would close Meadow Bridge High, Fayetteville High, Valley High, Ansted Middle, Mount Hope Elementary, Rosedale Elementary, Gatewood Elementary, Fayetteville Elementary, Meadow Bridge Elementary, Divide Elementary, Ansted Elementary and Valley Elementary.

The Oak Hill attendance area would get a new pre-kindergarten through second grade school. New River Elementary in that area would be turned into a school for grades three through five. A new Collins Middle would be built for grades six through eight.

Oak Hill High would be renovated to include Fayetteville High’s grade nine through 12 students. Fayetteville High would become a new pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school.

A portion of Meadow Bridge High students would be redistricted to Greenbrier West High, others would attend Midland Trail High. Meadow Bridge would get a new pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school.
A new Ansted/Divide Elementary would be built. Midland Trail High would be turned into a middle/high school.

A portion of Valley High students would be redistricted to Kanawha County’s Riverside High. Other Valley High students would go to Oak Hill High. The existing Valley High would house pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students.

When different parts of the plan could be funded was unclear Thursday evening.

The state school board has the ultimate authority over what plan will be submitted to the SBA board for funding, and the projects will likely have to be funded over several years. Though the process to develop the plan was billed as a way to gauge Fayette residents’ input, several people at Thursday’s meeting objected to the plan.

Two constant defenders of Meadow Bridge High — Carolyn Arritt and Randall Patterson — criticized it.

The Fayette County Capital Planning Committee, which began meeting in June, is composed 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.

It was tasked with developing a facilities improvement plan that the state SBA’s board will fund.

To receive money in this year’s annual SBA funding cycle to start on the plan, Fayette must submit a proposal to the SBA by Oct. 1. SBA board members decide how to distribute the SBA’s state general revenue, bond proceeds and lottery money to school construction and renovation projects around the state.

The SBA staff’s committee process with Fayette residents, launched after the SBA board shot down Fayette’s last request to fund a school consolidation plan in December, is referred to in a lawsuit against the SBA as “another apparently interminable process of data collection and planning” that promises no ultimate “commitment of funds.” The lawsuit, filed in May, alleges the SBA has failed to fulfill its duties to fix Fayette’s facilities and academic issues.

Scott Raines, the SBA’s director of school planning and construction, said evaluations of Fayette’s 17 regular public schools by Charleston-based ZMM Architects & Engineers show it would take about $198.2 million to bring them all up to current codes and standards, including installing more secure school entrances. He said inflation will grow that figure about 3 percent every year.

Raines said that if the SBA were to provide the maximum amount of renovation funding its policies allow, it could still only give $162 million, which equals 65 percent of the cost of replacing each school with a new building designed to meet its current enrollment.

The county that’s received the most SBA money, Berkeley, got $100 million, but that was over the entire quarter century the SBA has existed. The Fayette funding request that the SBA turned down in December, noting financial and other concerns, would have cost $39.6 million over three years to consolidate four Fayette high schools, including Meadow Bridge, into one new school.

SBA staff told the committee the county has lost 1,905 students, more than a fifth of the public school system enrollment, over the past two decades.

Raines said only four Fayette schools meet the SBA’s 85 percent building utilization rate goal, while the rest are “severely underutilized.”

Much of the public attention and pressure to solve school facilities issues in Fayette came after state Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano ordered the closure of Collins Middle’s seventh- and eighth-grade building in January 2015 because of structural issues, sending about 400 of its students to county high schools and fueling the effort to pass Fayette’s first school building and renovation bond in more than 40 years.

But in June 2015, Fayette voters shot down the bond, which would’ve funded a new Collins Middle building along with high school consolidations and other building projects.

For this school year, Collins Middle students will be reunited in portable classrooms at the Oak Hill High campus.

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