(05/05/2005)

Kanawha Judge Paul Zakaib continues stay on Mingo
school case, following attorney Jim Lees request

Linda Martin (right) of Challenge WV says to consolidation supporter
Dr. James Endicott (left) "I know you're a smart man. Why do you ignore all the research that community schools educate kids much better?"
Mingo Board president Bill Duty (center) looks on

By Bob Weaver

The "bloody hammer" of school consolidation came before a Kanawha County court again on May 2nd. It was put away, at least until July, with Judge Paul Zakaib refusing to lift a stay on the state's mandate to build a consolidated school in Mingo County.

Charleston attorney Jim Lees (pictured left) representing three Mingo board members and other citizens, told the court it is illegal to move ahead with construction on a piece of property that the school board does not own.

During the hearing, Judge Zakaib raised the question about state officials negating the constitutional power of an elected school board, which is supposed to represent the will of Mingo County citizens.

Gov. Joe Manchin, who favors preserving community schools, has said "I will make sure we are not using the bloody hammer of the pocketbook of the School Building Authority" to force consolidation.

Following the hearing, Mingo Board President Bill Duty said "I commend the judge for doing what he did. Who among you would move ahead when you don't own the land?"

State board Vice President Lowell Johnson said he was saddened by Zakaib's ruling. "These kids need a school," he said.

Now, the State Board of Education is taking the case to the Supreme Court.

Consolidation proponent Dr. James Endicott (left) angrily points finger at a Mingo senior saying "Where's your brain? Where's your brain?" Board President Bill Duty (right) said "Who would build on land you don't own?"

Retiring state school superintendent Dr. David Stewart (pictured left) appeared disengaged in the courtroom battle. Mingo school board
member and coal miner, Mike Carter (right) has run up $16,000 in legal fees following frivolous ethics charges brought by Dr. Endicott

"I'm frustrated. I'm mad. I'm tired of the lies and the manipulation," said Dee Kapourales, a Mingo County board member who supports the consolidated school.

Dr. James Endicott, a board member favoring consolidation, angrily confronted a Mingo senior citizen outside the courtroom, shaking his finger and asking "Where are your brains? Where are your brains?"

Dr. Endicott filed a frivolous ethics charge against board member Mike Carter, who opposes the consolidation project. The charge has cost Carter over $15,000 in fees from his own pocket. Carter, a coal miner, said "This consolidation deal is not about educating our kids. It is about big buildings and long bus rides."

Carter said "If anyone thinks this is about saving the taxpayers money, they're crazy."

Retiring State Superintendent of Schools David Stewart declined to comment following the hearing, although he maintains school consolidation has been good for West Virginia students.

Lees argued that his clients could be held financially liable if the coal company backs out of the real-estate agreement. He said he was unsuccessful in getting the coal company donating the land to respond to inquiries, "not the least to appear and give testimony."

Lees said he wants to know if the State Board of Education exceeded its authority when it seized control of Mingo County schools.

Kelli Talbott, Deputy Attorney General, argued that the delay will bring "irreparable harm to the state" if the project does not move ahead by May, stating the proposed site would not be available until 2007. She cited work the company wants to do now on the proposed site.

The State Board of Education, taking over the Mingo system for a second time, has ordered Williamson, Burch and Matewan high schools closed with the building of a new consolidated high school on Red Jacket Mountain.

The schools were constructed during the 1970s and 1980s.

Currently, there is no access road to the proposed school, a distance of ten miles from a state highway. The school is linked to the construction of the King Coal Highway, a project whose completion day is uncertain and is touted to bring development opportunities to the mountaintop mining site.

The School Building Authority has said they will give the county $18 million to build the school, which could cost between $60 and $70 million, including construction, site preparation and roads.

The Mingo board has been given agreements or letters of intent from Pocahontas Coal Company and Nicewonder Contracting to donate about 60 acres of stripped mining land, after the coal has been extracted.

The state board also cited a recent audit by the state Office of Education Performance Audits that found "extraordinary circumstances" in curriculum, facilities, finance, leadership and compliance in Mingo County, although the system is still under the management of the state's appointed superintendent Brenda Skibo.

Zakaib is scheduling a hearing on the case for July 7 and 8.


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