DARKNESS FALLS ON MINGO COUNTY CONSOLIDATION BATTLE

(08/11/2008)

This remote Mingo mountain, far from existing infrastructure,
is an economic development project which includes the building
of a consolidated school that closes five other schools and creates
long bus rides for many students.

Ethics charges have allegedly been brought against Mingo
County's Economic Redevelopment Director Mike Whitt over
his personal purchase of this 3.5 acre lot making a quick
turn-around profit of $100,000

By Dianne Weaver

The construction of new multi-million dollar consolidated schools in West Virginia are becoming centerpieces for economic development, according to Challenge Coordinator Thomas Ramey.

Ramey cited the recent billion dollar CharlesPointe project in Harrison County along I-79, a Tax Increment Financing proposal where school and county officials had wanted to build a new consolidated school in what is a partially-gated housing and commercial community.

"In fact, the closure of community schools has seen the collapse of local economies," said Ramey.

Mingo County's proposed consolidated high school, adjacent the King Coal Highway on a remote mountain site donated by a coal company (ownership changed from Nicewonder to Alpha and more recently to Cleveland Cliffs Coal).

The consolidated school project is supported by the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, which has about 1,500 nearby acres for commercial and residential development adjacent the school site and the King Coal Highway, which some officials say may not be completed in 50 years.

The state school system, which took over the Mingo school board a number of years ago, is closing five county high schools. The state gets into the consolidation business once they take over county school systems.

Those closures will require long bus rides for many students to the consolidated school on the remote Mingo strip mine site.

Those schools, Williamson, Matewan, Burch, Gilbert and a vocational school are slated for closure, most of them built in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Saving Bucks

The state school system has claimed such consolidation saves money and improves academic opportunities, although there is little proof. Certainly, there is little justification with the high cost of diesel fuel added to the state already having the costliest bus system in the USA.

Bill Duty (left) a member of the Mingo board, says the total cost of building the consolidated school is not available, but projected costs of getting water and sewage back on the mountain could be $8-9 million.

The water and sewage costs are just a drop in the bucket.

Board member Duty, who has frequently used Freedom of Information requests to get answers, said Mingo is under a court order to move forward with the consolidated school. He says "I'm confused about the court order 'making' us [board members] move forward when the state controls the school system."

Duty has not been allowed to speak at board meetings. "Those of us who oppose this are without legal representation," he said.

The Mingo board has opposed the consolidation as do most county citizens, expressing concerns about available funds to complete the school, with the School Building Authority not funding infrastructure access, athletic facilities, landscaping, or furnishings.

The School Building Authority has issued $29 million for the project, with some other funding promised, but the entire school project could cost from $75-$100 million. Enrollment for the school is estimated at 850.

It could be one of the most expensive schools ever built in America, capitated for the number students.

Some of that infrastructure cost would support other development plans on the mountain proposed by the Mingo Economic Redevelopment Authority.

Jackie Branch (right) a newly elected board member from Williamson, agreed with Duty that the state operated system is spending money "like a drunken sailor," including salaries they feel are out of line. State appointed superintendent Dwight Dials receives $103,000 plus benefits, more than the Kanawha County superintendent.

Jackie says "No one wants to talk about fixing school problems," after the state has blamed Mingo for academic and financial failure. Even after years of the take-over, academic scores have worsened.

Jackie said "Most of this seems little to do with educating our children."

No Place For A School

Challenge fellow Paul Hamrick says SBA Director Mark Manchin made a major point, recently saying "For the SBA, in every instance, with the exception of the eastern panhandle in places like Berkley County and Jefferson County where growth is amazing...we just haven't approved new schools where there are no children present." (Bridgeport News)

"Dr. Manchin has conveniently forgotten the proposed Mingo consolidated school," Hamrick said. The Mingo school is supposed to be operational in 2010.

Mingo activist Barbara Chafin says "This is no place for a school. It is allowing the coal company to get tax free coal. The deal allows them to mine the coal without a permit."

Chafin contends the Mingo Redevelopment Authority picked the school site to support private development, not to help the education of children.

"The area on which the school is to be built is unstable," Chafin said, because of layers of deep mines underneath the property, with the 200-300 foot cut being back-filled with 120 feet of earth.

Chafin (left) said the state's environmental impact study in 2000 said there are "No known sub-surface (underground) mines have been identified within the build alternatives (under King Coal Highway)."

Chafin says to follow the money - "Who sits on the redevelopment authority gets the goods."

Follow The Money?

Ethics charges have allegedly been brought against Mingo County's Economic Redevelopment Director Mike Whitt with the state's ethic's commission.

Whitt appears to have made $100,000 in a rapid turn-around of property.

Theresa Kirk, legal counsel for the Ethics Commission, said she could not "confirm or deny" the complaint had been filed.

The charges reportedly are related to the sale of 3.5 acres of land in a valley near the foot of the mountaintop site for the school and development project.

The complaint appears to be based on an assumption that Whitt's position allowed him to achieve private gain.

Whitt reportedly purchased the property from Pocahontas Land in May, 2007 for $16,100. He sold the property a few months later for $117,500 to the West Virginia Housing Fund.

Efforts to reach Whitt did not result in a returned call.

Although Whitt is a major proponent for the new school, in a 2001 hearing he said, "We must stop the cycle of schools being closed, good teachers leaving and major industry jobs vanishing."

Joe Hatfield with the housing fund indicated he was aware of the complaint, but said Whitt had personal control of the property for several years, making improvements before purchasing it.

Hatfield said he saw no ethical violation with the transaction.

WV Housing purchased the lot for a housing sub-division, dividing it into 12 sections, Hatfield said, with "The purchase price below the appraised value."

Ethics charges related to the same incident, have reportedly been filed against Andrew Dillon, a Mingo County Redevelopment board member and a member of the Mingo Housing Authority.

Dillon said he had no involvement in the transaction, with an awareness of the deal "based on what Whitt told me" in a conversation.

The sub-division is located in the poverty-stricken billion dollar coal field of Mingo County.

Has The Fat Lady Sung?

Mingo school superintendent Dwight Dials said the consolidation issue is over. "It is not if, but when," he said, regarding construction of the new school.

"It will be a great day for Mingo County when the school is built and ready for occupancy," said Dials.

State Superintendent Steve Paine said the final decisions have been made, closing a chapter on the Mingo school debate.

Mingo County school board president Butch West says citizens will not approve a bond levy for the school, although supporters say the school will be built without it.

Challenge WV fellows will be returning to Mingo in August for a meeting, looking once again at the issue.

"At the very least, the deal is a violation of the solid democratic beliefs of the citizens of Mingo County, where government rolls over the will of the people and their elected officials," said Challenge's Thomas Ramey.

West said the county funding will continue to decrease, with Mingo students crossing into Kentucky to attend school, creating a financial crisis. Over 6,000 Mingo citizens have signed a petition opposing wholesale consolidation in the county.

"This state has a long history of violating its citizens. That tide could be on the verge of turning," Ramey said.


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