CHARLESTON – Three Nicholas County parents have filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the state School Building Authority’s plan to use $177 million of federal money to consolidate schools.
Heather Sharp-Spinks of Nettie, Tabby Smith of Richwood and Amber Chapman of Craigsville filed a complaint Nov. 13 in Kanawha Circuit Court against the West Virginia School Building Authority over its planned use of Federal Emergency Management Agency funds associated with flooding that ravaged the state in June 2016.
Richwood High School, Richwood Middle School and Summersville Middle School all received extensive damage. The state, FEMA and the Nicholas County Board of Education decided consolidating would be a better plan than rebuilding the three damaged schools.
The school board has applied for money from FEMA under its 428 policy that would allow the board to use the funds to consolidate Richwood High and Richwood Middle and to build Summersville Middle and Nicholas County High at Glade Creek. The board wants to use the proposed combined budgets of $177 million.
The parents filed their suit saying a Sept. 4 SBA board meeting violated state open meetings laws. They say those violations make the SBA’s approval for Nicholas County’s school board to use the FEMA 428 funding invalid.
They seek to have a declaration issued saying the Sept. 4 SBA meeting violated open meeting laws and that any action taken at that meeting is invalid and annulled. They also seek a declaration that SBA officials didn’t have “the authority to sign the ‘Nicholas County Alternative Procedures Pilot Program 428 Agreement’ during or after the Sept. 4” meeting. They also seek court costs, attorney fees and other relief.
The June 2016 floods damages hundreds of homes and businesses and resulted in at least 23 deaths. Nicholas County was among the hardest hit regions of the state.
Talks about how to handle the damaged Nicholas County schools began shortly after the flooding. The original plan was to close Richwood High and Richwood Middle schools and build a new school for both at Glade Creek. That new school also would include Nicholas County High School, which wasn’t damaged in the flooding. That plan upset residents on the Richwood side of the county. Lawsuits and mediation ensued.
Last May, the Nicholas County school board came up with the new plan to build one new school in Richwood and another at Glade Creek. That plan included adding Richwood High and Richwood Middle onto the existing Cherry River Elementary campus.
The school board planned to use the FEMA 428 money, which required approval from the SBA and the state Office of Homeland Security. The purpose of the Sept. 4 SBA meeting was to sign off on that document which had been approved earlier in the day by the Nicholas County school board.
That meeting is the crux of this lawsuit. Charleston attorney James Barber, a Richwood High graduate, had put the SBA on notice of an open meetings lawsuit. The SBA had another meeting on Oct. 22 to correct the issues, and Barber had said he wouldn’t file the lawsuit then.
However, a FEMA spokesman told the Charleston Gazette-Mail the agency had the signatures needed from the Sept. 4 meeting.
That, according to Barber, is why he filed the lawsuit on behalf of the three women.
“I believed the FEMA deadline had been extended,” he told The West Virginia Record. “Why else would you re-do the meeting? I thought the Oct. 22 meeting mooted the need for a lawsuit. I assumed the FEMA deadline had been extended. I learned later that it had not been extended.
“The Oct. 22 meeting was only for show apparently aside from being an admission that the Sept 4 meeting was invalid.”
The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey.
Kanawha Circuit Court case number 18-C-1418