(06/23/2005)
By Dianne Weaver

The "bloody hammer" of school consolidation has been slowed in Mingo County.

The West Virginia Supreme Court has refused to consider a state Board of Education appeal of circuit judge Paul Zakaib's ruling that delayed construction of Mingo County's proposed consolidated high school.

The case will continue before Zakaib in Charleston on July 7-8.

Zakaib refused to lift a stay which prevents the state Board of Education from entering into real estate deals with coal companies for a strip site yet to be owned by the Mingo school board.

"Who would move forward constructing a building on a site they do not own?" asked Mingo board president Bill Duty. The coal operation is still extracting coal from the site, located in a rural area of Mingo County about ten miles from the nearest highway.

The property at Red Jacket is atop a 60-acre mine site which will eventually be next to the proposed King Coal Highway.

Duty said the state indicated all was fine with the Mingo system, but after the county school board declined to go along with the state's consolidation plan, a new audit found dozens of deficiencies.

The state declared a state of emergency and seized control of the county's schools, after the board refused to close three high schools.

The takeover, the second in less than a decade, stripped the local board of nearly all decision-making powers.

While a state audit said Mingo schools are in crisis, the state retained their own superintendent, Brenda Skibo, who has been administrating the the system. Duty and members Mitchell Chapman and Michael Carter claim they were denied their right to fulfill their duties as elected officials.

Carter is facing a $16,000 legal bill for a frivolous ethics complaint brought against him by board member Dr. James Endicott, although the Ethics Commission ruled against Endicott.

Charleston lawyer Jim Lees, who represents Duty, Chapman, Carter and two residents in the case, said, "We're still on track to get to the heart and soul of this case, and that is the state school board's ability to send duly elected officials notice they can't perform the duty of their office."

Meanwhile, a constitutional challenge in Lincoln County of the state board's authority over elected officials is still on the burner.

Now retired state superintendent of schools Dave Stewart advised the Lincoln County school board that the state's $50 million plan for the construction of a consolidated high school in Hamlin will likely bankrupt the system.

The school is now being built in a swampy area where the access road floods, following the eviction of an elderly, invalid landowner to obtain the site.

It may well be the most expensive school ever built in America, related to cost per student.

While closure hearings continue, other hearings are being conducted around the county to consider keeping other schools open, according to board president Carol Smith.

State officials have told Smith that they may have used poor judgment in Lincoln County consolidation, indicating the plan could push the county system toward bankruptcy.

"One doesn't know what to make of this. It's certainly not common sense," said Smith.

Challenge WV fellow Thomas Ramey of Lincoln County said "It is a tragic affair, the state taking over our system to provide better management, at the same time sinking us, deeper and deeper," citing the state's obsession for wholesale consolidation. In Lincoln's case, creating long bus rides from rural areas of the county and forcing students to attend school in other counties.


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