CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has issued an opinion, stating that it agrees with the West Virginia Board of Education in rejecting a plan to consolidate schools in Nicholas County.

The Supreme Court concluded that the WVBOE is vested with constitutional, statutory and regulatory authority to exercise its discretion in accepting or rejecting an amended consolidated educational facilities plan and attendant consolidation plan and that mere procedural compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements does not entitle a county board of education to approval of its proposed plan.

Justice Margaret Workman authored the majority opinion. Chief Justice Allen Loughry concurred and filed a separate opinion.

“We further find that the reasons formally adopted by the WVBOE for rejection of the plan were neither arbitrary nor capricious,” Workman wrote. “Therefore, the circuit court erred in granting the writ of mandamus.”

The consolidation plan was to consolidate Nicholas County High School, Richwood High School, Richwood Middle School and Summersville Middle School.

The Nicholas County Board of Education planned on using FEMA recovery money from last year’s flood, which damaged the schools, to build a new, consolidated campus for the four schools, as well as the county’s vocational education center.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Louis “Duke” Bloom ordered the state board to either give conditional approval to the Nicholas County Board of Education’s school consolidation plan or for it to post a bond in the amount of $130 million to cover federal funds on the line with FEMA. In the previous ruling, Bloom ruled that the state board erred in rejecting the county’s consolidation plan.

“The issue presented herein is whether the WVBOE has authority to reject a CEFP amendment attendant to a consolidation plan, where the local board has complied with the requirements contained in West Virginia Code § 18-5-13a and West Virginia Code of State Regulations §§ 126-176-1 et seq.,” Workman wrote. “If the Court determines that the WVBOE has such authority, it must ascertain whether such authority was exercised arbitrarily or capriciously in this case.”

Workman said the court had historically observed in cases of this nature, that the advisability, or lack thereof, of consolidation is not properly within this court’s purview.

“The wisdom, efficacy and feasibility of school consolidation are matters reserved to the respective boards of education,” she wrote. “This Court’s charge is solely to ascertain whether the WVBOE’s rejection of the CEFP amendment was a proper use of its lawful authority.”

Multiple members of the state board expressed concern that the public hearings conducted were perfunctory and failed to address issues and concerns raised.

“Certain members expressed their view, with the support of educational research, that community schools better serve impoverished students, of which Richwood has a high number,” she wrote. “Certain members expressed concern that the Board had not adequately addressed or considered the impact of consolidation on discipline and extracurricular activities, as pertains to the well-being of the student body and educational environment.  Nearly all members expressed concern that alternatives which would better address the foregoing issues were not sufficiently demonstrated to have been considered by the Board. Nearly all members expressed that all of the affected schools were doing well academically and financially and that, typically, consolidation is utilized to improve upon either or both.”

The common theme in the members’ testimony was that they were concerned about consolidation given Richwood’s high number of impoverished families and the ample research suggesting that such students do not thrive in a larger school setting.

“Without passing on the relative merits of any of the WVBOE members’ testimony, we find that the thoughtful and well-supported rationales offered by the WVBOE members objectively pertain to the feasibility, desirability, and efficacy of consolidation,” Workman wrote. “Accordingly, we find no basis upon which to cast their reasoning as arbitrary or capricious; rather, their reasoning was unified, well-expressed, and, above all, plainly germane to the wisdom of consolidation and the well-being of the student population. We therefore find that the circuit court erred in concluding that the WVBOE’s rejection of the CEFP amendment was arbitrary and/or capricious.”

The Supreme Court reversed Bloom’s Aug. 18 order.

In his concurring opinion, Loughry wrote that while the proceeding necessarily required the Supreme Court to examine the state board’s stated reasons for rejection of the CEFP, the court’s conclusion that its reasoning was neither arbitrary nor unreasonable should not be construed as a tacit endorsement of any plan or solution.

“Although acknowledged in the majority’s opinion, it warrants reiteration that it is not the charge of this court to wade into the deeply emotional and occasionally political issues that understandably surround school closure and consolidation,” Loughry wrote. “Rather, those issues are left exclusively to the respective county and state boards of education to utilize their collective wisdom and experience to determine what best serves their students’ needs. Only when a board of education so wholly abdicates its role such as to make its rationale arbitrary and unsupportable, may a court intervene. No such circumstances exist here.”

As the parties move forward, Loughry wrote that he trusts that they will work cooperatively, diligently and with alacrity to ensure that the students of Nicholas County receive the educational facilities, programs and opportunities they deserve and to which they are constitutionally entitled.

“As a reminder to all citizens of the State—inasmuch as each has a role to play in our educational system—the ‘thorough and efficient’ education to which our children are entitled ‘develops, as best the state of education expertise allows, the minds, bodies and social morality of its charges to prepare them for useful and happy occupations, recreation and citizenship, and does so economically.’”

Loughry wrote that he is confident that the parties’ ardently expressed concern for the children’s well-being will lead Nicholas County students to precisely that end.

W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals case number: 17-0767

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