Last month, the West Virginia Board of Education blocked a decision by the Nicholas County School Board to relocate the town of Richwood’s schools nearly 30 miles away.
For six months, citizens of tiny Richwood, West Virginia, fought hard, but failed to convince the county board and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that their flood-damaged schools should stay in Richwood.
What they didn’t know was that the newly appointed head of the School Building Authority, the state agency dealing with FEMA, was listening. “It was a fairness issue,” executive director Frank “Bucky” Blackwell said. “I looked at the destruction in the county, and in my mind, it was not the right thing to do to leave the county without two schools.” Blackwell asked Scott Raines, director of school planning and construction, for the state to look into alternatives.
Raines explained to the state Board of Education at a meeting in June that FEMA funding could be used to build a combined middle and high school in both Richwood and at the site of the originally planned consolidated campus in Summersville.
Using regular FEMA funding, instead of a pilot program, could benefit both Richwood and Summerville, state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine explained to the board. FEMA would allow funding for the Richwood schools at their original size, which, for the high school at nearly 1,100 students, is more than twice the current number of students enrolled. Paine said the funding for Richwood High School could be sufficient for a combined middle and high school, and possibly a career-technical program, in Summersville. Richwood Middle School was designed for 682 students, more than the total 665 currently in the city’s high and middle schools. So restoration funding from the middle school could build a similar campus in Richwood.
But the plan still faces a number of obstacles, both from FEMA, and from the county’s economic troubles.
Reveal reported in May that after the historic June 23, 2016 flood, county school officials chose to use a pilot program under the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act. This allows public institutions to be relocated and even repurposed. Critics say it can harm recovering communities. Emails between FEMA and school officials revealed missteps by FEMA in the consolidation planning, which a FEMA official has acknowledged.
The program has a tight deadline, which was to be June 25 – 365 days after the disaster declaration. FEMA extended the deadline six months, still a short time to redesign the schools and find a site in Richwood.
Residents have recommended a half dozen sites. But the location will have to pass 22 FEMA standards, including being free of hazardous waste and endangered species, FEMA federal coordinating officer Steven Ward said.
Nicholas County school district officials worry they can’t afford enough teachers for both school complexes. The county has lost $124 million, 12 percent, in assessed taxable value in the past four years.
“Mines closed down,” county board member A.J. Rogers said at the state board meeting. “We have been reducing staff for several years to balance the budget.”
Not only did the Richwood campaign kill consolidation, it seems to have pushed FEMA to negotiate publicly. After the flood, most meetings between the county board and FEMA were private. The day after consolidation was nixed, Ward addressed the county board and citizens at a special public meeting.
“Solutions do exist,” former Richwood mayor Jeromy Rose wrote on the I am Richwood Facebook page, “that are compromises for both sides and will provide a win-win for all students and all tax payers.”
But the struggle isn’t over. On June 28, the Nicholas County Board of Education filed a lawsuit against the state Board of Education and Paine alleging it arbitrarily denied the consolidation plan. The lawsuit also alleges political pressure against consolidation from Gov. Jim Justice, who appointed six of the nine members of the board.
The Richwood Alumni Association started a petition requesting the resignation of all five members of the Nicholas County Board of Education. It has more than 1,000 signatures.
While the court considers the lawsuit, FEMA will continue to communicate with state officials about rebuilding the schools, FEMA Region III Director of External Affairs Daniel Stoneking said.
Penny Loeb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @tutalibi.