CHARLES TOWN – It sounded like an innovative project to Ben Ashley, a senior administrator with the West Virginia School Building Authority.
In a phone interview, Ashley said Jefferson County Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson and school board members stopped at the authority’s Charleston office in mid-February and briefly introduced the concept of a multi-purpose regional education center.
“Anytime [school boards] do something where they think outside the box and sort of push the level of service, elevate the level of service to the students, that’s where we get a little favorability,” said Ashley, the Building Authority’s director of architectural services.
Ashley said he didn’t believe that a location for the facility was discussed.
In a court filing this month, officials with Jefferson County Schools said the site where the controversial Rockwool stonewool insulation factory has been under construction since last summer was the ideal site for the new center – so much so the school board needed to use its power as a governmental entity to seize the property.
On Feb. 7, Gibson had written to Rockwool officials stating the school system was pursuing “any and all legal, ethical courses of action to oppose the enactment of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes Agreement.”
School board members Kathy Skinner, Laurie Ogden, Mark Osbourn, Gary Kable and Scott Sudduth had OK’d the PILOT with Rockwool in late 2017.
The school board now includes Skinner, Ogden, Osbourn, Kable and Arthena Roper. Roper was elected in May – before the Rockwool controversy erupted.
Paul Espinosa, the Jefferson County Republican who heads the House Education Committee, said several county residents have contacted him with concerns about the school board’s move to take Rockwool’s property and whether the regional education facility is truly needed in Jefferson County.
Tthe school board’s April 8 vote to move forward with the condemnation was not on that meeting’s agenda as required by law or ever publicly discussed, Espinosa said.
“While certainly respect that some action may be discussed in executive session for legitimate reasons, it seems to me that there should have been – if there wasn’t – should have been public notification so that the public could have attended and had some notice.”
He said it’s also unusual that neither Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson nor any Jefferson school board members had brought up the idea of a regional center to him or other public officials.
“Frankly, I was a little surprised that if it was such a priority why it was never mentioned,” he said.
Espinosa said he wasn’t aware of any similar special education centers or facilities operated by school districts. H said he was researching what other existing facilities are serving school systems in the region.
While acknowledging that serving special education students with intensive needs is expensive, Espinosa said funding for some of those services can be limited.
“Frankly, it never seems to be enough for the existing facilities that we have, such as for the [West Virginia] Schools for the Deaf and Blind” in Romney.
Rockwool has filed suit in federal court and a hearing is set for Tuesday. Depending on the outcome, Espinosa said other questions would need to be answered.
“I guess I would be interested to know more how this facility will be funded in the event that it does move forward,” he said. “Not only what sources of funding will support the construction but how you will support it going forward.”
At Monday night’s school board meeting, the board heard a presentation of a $105 million draft budget for the school system for Fiscal Year 2020. The draft has a revenue gap of $3.6 million.
This year the school system is serving 168 fewer students while its staffing level has increased by 23 positions since 2017.
“We’re asking to do more with less and less and less,” said Beth Marrone, treasurer and chief business officer for Jefferson County Schools.
Praise for school board
At Monday’s meeting, four people voiced their support for the board’s regional student center during the public comment period. Others brought in posters showing their gratitude for the board’s actions to try to secure the Rockwool site and keep the factory from opening next year as planned.
According to Hans Fogle, the spokesman for the school system, the new center would allow Jefferson County Schools to care for “around 40” students with a variety of challenging physical and emotional needs who now are served at special education centers outside the county and the state at a cost of about $2 million a year.
School officials have said the regional center on the Rockwool site would serve special ed students and offer a slew of other programs – for gifted students, to house science and technology and vocational instruction, to deliver adult learning courses and for a Virtual School Center, a Parent Resource Center, a “homebound services facility” and “a residential facility for populations housed on site for future expansion.”
Berkeley school officials have preliminarily agreed to use the center if built, Jefferson officials said.
Following an executive session at the end of the school board’s April 8 meeting, the board voted 4-0 to pursue the condemnation of the Rockwool property.
Skinner, Ogden, Kable and Roper approved the action. Osbourn abstained.
There is no video of the board’s vote.
“Jefferson County Schools is committed to developing a regional student support center to meet these needs in a way that creates a more positive and productive experience for our students, families and staff,” stated a two-page news release emailed the afternoon of April 9.
Then on April 12, school officials formally offered Rockwool $1.4 million for the nearly 195 acres on which the company has been building the 460,000-square-foot factory. The petition was filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court.
Rockwool states that it has already spent $47 million on what would be a $150 million factory. The company has asked the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia in Martinsburg to stop the eminent domain seizure.
Rockwool argues that the school board has plenty of options to purchase other undeveloped land to place the regional student center, including 150 acres on Currie Road that the school board has purchased that might accommodate as many as three schools.
No school board member has responded to questions from the Spirit about when they first learned of the regional student center idea or when they publicly discussed the center before voting on the eminent domain action.
Neither the regional student center nor the attempt to seize Rockwell’s factory site was discussed during Monday’s school board meeting.