Under threat of a lawsuit over transparency, the West Virginia School Building Authority board revoted Monday to allow using federal flood recovery money to consolidate schools in Nicholas County.
The SBA board allowed James Barber, the Richwood High graduate and attorney who alleged open meetings act violations, and Stu Matthis, another Richwood High graduate and vice president/senior engineer at STV Engineers, to present Monday.
Barber and Matthis alleged the process for picking where Richwood schools will be rebuilt was flawed, and Barber requested re-examination by a non-connected expert. Both suggested the “Collins” site, property owned by Collins Hardwood, is superior to the chosen site.
Matthis outlined what he called “significant errors” in a site selection evaluation document comparing the Collins site and the selected site: Cherry River Elementary. He noted the document was dated June 19, 2018, after the Nicholas Board of Education approved a plan to use the Cherry River Elementary site.
The Nicholas school board plans to renovate and expand that school to also fit Richwood Middle and Richwood High students, whose former buildings the county school system razed following damage from the June 2016 flood.
“This [location] assessment had a predisposed outcome,” Matthis said at the end of his 5-minute presentation.
Among his criticisms, Matthis noted the site evaluations, done by Charleston-based ZMM Architects & Engineers, rated the Cherry River Elementary site superior to the Collins site in safety, despite the Collins site being next to the Richwood Police Department, a West Virginia State Police detachment and a fire station. He also said both sites are adjacent to sawmills in the historic lumber town, and estimated the Cherry River Elementary site is actually closer to the cutting equipment.
He told SBA board members he was open to questions, but they asked none of him nor ZMM architect and principal David Ferguson, who’s working for the Nicholas board. Ferguson gave no presentation, and the SBA board in attendance unanimously re-approved the action from the challenged meeting.
The whole meeting was done in about 20 minutes.
Ferguson did say after the meeting that the site selection process was ongoing when the Nicholas board approved its plan using Cherry River Elementary; that “there’s not a group of police waiting” at the Richwood police stations; and that the Collins site saw flooding in the 2016 flood. Matthis countered that the location is still out of the 100-year floodplain.
SBA board Chairman Brian Abraham, who’s also Gov. Jim Justice’s general counsel, told his fellow board members that their votes Monday and on Sept. 4, the date of the first vote, weren’t about picking any school locations.
“This is, I guess, proposed as intent. The 428 [funding method] would be locked in but as far as the final here’s what it’s going to look like, here’s what it’s going to be, that’s not been presented by the Nicholas County school board yet to us,” Abraham said. The 428 funding method allows Nicholas to use Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars to consolidate schools instead of rebuilding them separately.
Both the 428 agreement document Abraham signed right after the Sept. 4 meeting and the 428 agreement document attached to Monday’s meeting agenda say the Nicholas board “intends to utilize” the money to locate Richwood Middle and Richwood High “at the site of Cherry River Elementary.”
Every Nicholas board member attended Monday alongside Nicholas schools Superintendent Donna Burge-Tetrick; Chief Deputy Attorney General Kelli Talbott, who SBA staff officials said suggested redoing the meeting; and Bowles Rice attorney Rebecca Tinder, who represented the Nicholas board in its failed lawsuit against the state Board of Education.
Last year, the state school board rejected a Nicholas board plan that would’ve rebuilt no schools in Richwood. After the West Virginia Supreme Court upheld the state board’s right to reject that plan, the state and Nicholas boards agreed on at least the outlines of the current plan, including the Cherry River Elementary location.
The Nicholas board had scheduled a meeting for Tuesday for discussion [possibly with lawyers] and possible action in light of the SBA board’s action Monday “and the enforcement of the Agreement reached between the West Virginia Board of Education and the Nicholas County Board of Education, which was approved by the West Virginia Board of Education, for the construction of facilities … and the use of the FEMA 428 funding for the same, including construction on the property known as the Cherry River Elementary Property.”
Burge-Tetrick said that meeting was going to be informational, and likely won’t happen now.