WV school board approves Fayette school consolidation plan

Ryan Quinn, Staff Writer

West Virginia Board of Education members approved a consolidation plan for Fayette County schools on Wednesday, almost exactly a year after the board approved a different plan that the state School Building Authority decided not to fund.

Board members voted 7-1 for the new plan, which has the backing of the SBA’s staff. Tom Campbell, of Greenbrier County, was the only board member to vote no. Gayle Manchin, whose has asked Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to find a replacement for her now that her term has expired, was the only board member absent.

The vote came after audience members argued for and against the plan, and several speakers, including Smithers Mayor Thomas Skaggs, objected to the plan to close Valley High School in Smithers.

Campbell said he was concerned about a possible drop in extracurricular activity participation and other issues that might result from consolidation, saying it would harm rural communities.

“I think for West Virginia to ignore that tremendous strength in our people, and to base school decisions solely upon data and curriculum, I think is a mistake,” Campbell said.

Several of those in favor of the plan had argued its development was data-driven.

The new plan would drop the number of Fayette public schools from 18 to 11; change various grade configurations; and preserve only two current public high schools, Oak Hill and Midland Trail, although Midland Trail would become a sixth- through 12th-grade school.

Wednesday’s vote clears the way for state Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano to ask the SBA board for money to start carrying out the plan, first to build a new Collins Middle and a new prekindergarten-through-second-grade school in the Oak Hill area.

Those two projects are expected to require $22.6 million in SBA funds and $17 million provided by Fayette’s school system, which has been controlled by the state school board since 2010.

The SBA board is expected to vote on funding requests from Fayette and other school systems in December. Authority members don’t have to follow staff recommendations, but they will at least hear support for the plan from SBA staff, instead of the concerns those employees cited about last year’s plan.

SBA funding is limited each year and is awarded on a competitive basis. Scott Raines, the SBA’s director of school planning and construction, said he doesn’t know what funding requests other school systems will submit, but he doesn’t foresee staff ranking any other project before Fayette’s.

Last September, the state school board voted 6-3 to approve a plan to erect a roughly $57 million building to consolidate four Fayette County high schools, meaning Valley High would have been the county’s only current public high school left operating. Collins Middle students, who are currently in portable classrooms in Oak Hill instead of their run-down school, would’ve moved into the vacated Oak Hill High building.

In December, the SBA board, which distributes money for school construction and renovation projects to public school systems around West Virginia, refused to provide funds to build the consolidated high school.

In the wake of the SBA vote, the state school board and SBA staff developed a new plan. The new plan would turn the Valley High building into a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school. Some of Valley High’s current students would be sent to Kanawha County’s Riverside High School, while others would attend the other Fayette high schools.

The new consolidation plan, just like the old one, includes closing Meadow Bridge High, but it would use the 1977 and 1987 additions to Meadow Bridge High to build a new pre-K- to eighth-grade school for the community.

SBA officials have argued the plan is the best way to address Fayette’s facilities problems considering the county’s limited funds.

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