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Jefferson County’s school system floats a ridiculous story in order to send Rockwool packing. It won’t work.

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Bondy Shay Gibson

Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson would have us believe there’s only one spot in the entire county for this urgently needed student resource center – the very site where Rockwool is spending $150 million to build its new factory. That is a lie.

Many of the angry citizens fighting the stonewool insulation factory under construction in a former orchard on the outskirts of Ranson see themselves as warriors in a moral cause. They are standing between innocent children and an industrial project that would ruin their health, upend their lives.

But the truth is, the children of Jefferson County are not at risk.

Everywhere from Mississippi to Canada to right in Rockwool’s home base of Denmark, the 80-year-old company has a track record of operating safely, without creating health issues. How is it that so many here continue  to insist that Rockwool will part from all of that as it brings its operations to Jefferson County?

Nowhere in the world, except in Jefferson County where Rockwool has not yet begun production, are there accusations that the company is a danger.

Amid all this madness, the Jefferson County school system could have positioned itself on the side of actual, factual information.

School system leaders could have helped to combat the hysteria by educating our community about what the company stands to bring to the county – yes, more pollution, but still less than what’s in place now in neighboring Loudoun County, Va., for example.

School officials could have pointed to the economic injection Rockwool will provide in our county, where a middle-class lifestyle is increasingly out of reach for those who aren’t lucky enough to earn big salaries via a long commute. Rockwool will mean 150 reliable jobs, with good salaries and benefits, right here in Ranson.

But no.

In service of the “moral” cause of stopping “ToxicRockwool,” school officials went to bat against Rockwool and now are opting to lie. And not just lie, but to spin a huge, easily debunked tall tale.

The school system wants us to believe that it’s just discovered an urgent need for a “regional student support center.” And wouldn’t you know it, there’s only one spot in the whole of Jefferson County that will suit for this new center – the very land just off W.Va. 9 where Rockwool would operate its 460,000-square-foot factory.

School officials say they need to seize the nearly 195-acre site and so already have gone to court to begin condemnation of the property – a process allowed to the school board as a government entity, in just the way that a person’s home or business can be taken over if it’s where it’s decided that’s where a highway should go through.

Though Rockwool has already spent $47 million on the $150 million project that’s set to open in about 15 months, the school board is offering to pay what it terms a “fair market” price of just $1.4 million for the land.

On Friday, Rockwool headed to federal court seeking to stop the school system’s literal land grab. It’s also asking that the school board pay its legal costs in filing the suit.

It’s hard to see how Rockwool won’t win that fight.

After all, the company announced its plans to build on the onetime Jefferson Orchards site back in mid-2017 and the school board knew about that and even signed onto the Payment In Lieu of Taxes agreement – never once bringing up its need for that particular piece of land.

The state requires each county put together a 10-year Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan to allow for years of long-range planning, and so how is it that a student resource center on this precise spot is suddenly not just on the table but on a fast track?

And why this bit of land? Ever since 2015, the school system has had an offer on the table from the City of Ranson for a cleared 10-acre parcel along Mildred Street that once was home to an foundry – and that plot would cost the school system nothing. That’s a considerable savings over paying $1.4 mil for Rockwool’s new home.

And the school system really needs a site this big – nearly 195 acres  – for a resource center?

And if that one area is so clearly the place for the resource center and the school system really needs so much space, why not just buy the available land right next door to the Rockwool site? Wouldn’t that area be just as good? Why disrupt Rockwool’s plans?

But of course that’s exactly the school board’s intent – to make sure Rockwool never gets up and running in Jefferson County.

It goes unstated as school officials tout plans for a resource center, but does Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson think we’ve all forgotten that school officials for months have been calling for Rockwool to stop building or that the county spent $19,000 on legal advice to try to get out of the Rockwool PILOT?

This resource center scheme isn’t about better serving students at all.

“Half-truths” is how the wild anti-Rockwool talk is framed in the company’s filing with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia in Martinsburg.

“Bowing to public pressure created and fueled by half-truths and speculation, the BOE now opposes the facility,” the suit reads. “For instance, it has very publicly demanded a moratorium on construction, and it has repeatedly threatened to terminate the PILOT. … The BOE’s motive is transparent.”

Initially, Hans Fogle, the spokesman for the school system, would say only that a vote had occurred. Later, Gibson offered a one-line email response to say the vote happened April 8. As our deadline neared, we tried to find out how the vote went. The video archive of the board’s April 8 meeting ends without showing the board’s vote on the matter. There’s also the question of whether the board took this vote without including the item on its agenda –a violation of the law.

 The school system has been dodgy on Rockwool matters for some time now. Remember that Gibson – apparently without an authorizing vote by the elected school board – back on Feb. 7 sent a letter to Rockwool warning that the school system would “pursue any and all legal, ethical courses of action to oppose the enactment of the Payment In Lieu of Taxes Agreement.”

School officials later said that that letter, signed by Gibson and sent on a letterhead featuring all the board members’ names, was not “an action” by her or the school board.

Opponents’ efforts to block the factory by denying it the promised, state-funded water and sewer lines have failed, and suits filed by the nonprofit citizens group Jefferson County Vision don’t hold much promise in halting Rockwool.

Now our young people are forced to watch school board members and school system officials – the very people in our community that they ought to be able to look up to – offering up fakery in service of a supposedly moral cause.

Maybe no one in the school system anticipated Rockwool’s suit, but what a monumental miscalculation school officials have made. They’re wasting money and will squander goodwill. Predictably, this contemptible, half-baked charade has won cheers from those in the “Never Rockwool” movement, but this is no time for hurrahs. A hysterical effort to drive out a perfectly safe manufacturer continues to tear apart out community, and now even our school system is cheating to try and get its way.

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