Following a spirited debate on Monday and 21/2 hours of public comment, the school board knotted up a 4-4 vote on a motion to direct school division administrators to focus a fresh study on building three new high schools to replace the current six facilities.
Voting for the measure — offered by Mike Mullins of Wise — were Mullins, Board Chairman Ted Thompson, Vice Chairman Phillip Bates and Vanessa Perry of Coeburn. Opposed were longtime consolidation opponents Barry Nelson and Mark Hutchinson, both of Appalachia, St. Paul’s Monty Salyer and — curiously — consolidation supporter Betty Cornett of Big Stone Gap.
Cornett was the deciding vote to bring things to a screeching stalemate, but on Tuesday said she hasn’t wavered from her pro-consolidation stance. In fact, she favors the three-school model pushed forward late Monday. It’s just that she felt it was the wrong way to do the right thing.
“No, I’m not against consolidation. My campaign that I ran (two years ago), my platform was that I want a detailed plan. I am for consolidation,” Cornett said Tuesday.
She said Monday’s motion directing the administration to slog through yet another study was too vague and open-ended, and seemed to unfairly dump the whole matter onto the shoulders of School Superintendent Greg Killough.
“The motion tells the administration to do it. It wanted him to have committees and to create committees, and I think this is a school board decision, and I don’t think it ought to be (pushed onto) the superintendent,” Cornett said. “I think (a decision on the future of the county’s high schools) should come from the whole board. That’s why we were elected.”
During Monday’s deliberations over the three-school study proposal, Salyer accused consolidation proponents of attempting to “skirt” state law.
“You ask for a vote (on the three-school study), and I think your motion is to close six high schools, and that violates Title 22 of the state law (referring to) the powers and duties of a school board, and that requires a public hearing. If you’re skirting around the law, you get sued,” Salyer said.
The motion “walks like a duck and talks like a duck,” Salyer said. “Therefore, it is a consolidation duck.”
School board attorney Scott Mullins said as he understood the motion, the proposal was not a violation of state law because it sought a study of the three-school model and did not endorse an adoption of that model.
Nelson said he opposed the motion because “we just asked this (school division administrative) staff to do a detailed study and it took forever, and I have a real problem asking them to do this again.”
Nelson referred to the comparative analysis the administration submitted to the board last month assessing cost projections and other issues with various options, including renovating the existing six high schools, building six new ones, or closing all six and building one, two or three brand-new schools.
Cornett agreed with Nelson’s perspective of yet another study.
“I think we’ve had enough studies. This issue has been studied since 1985,” she said. “Let’s set some goals and take responsibility for what we were elected to do.”
Perry said her constituents want the board to “move off center” and make a decision. Perry said she ran an openly pro-consolidation platform and was elected to the board last year by a significant majority of voters in her district.
Bates and Mike Mullins said the motion would provide the very information consolidation opponents say has been missing from the equation, namely proposed sites for the new high schools and the cost projections associated with land acquisition and site preparation. Hutchinson said the reason nothing gets done about the high schools — five of the six were built in the 1950s and are showing their age and then some — boils down to the lack of trust among board members and the six communities.
“The problem is, it’s trust,” he said.
People in the separate communities have been put in the position of defending their school to the detriment of the others, Hutchinson said.
“Not at the expense of my school,” he said of how the issue has proceeded. “I want my school if I destroy these other three communities ... (and) you are getting ready to destroy, I repeat, destroy public education because the public won’t have anything to do with it.”
Cornett’s comments on Tuesday indicated there remains a 5-3 pro-consolidation majority on the board. It’s getting there in the right way that concerns her, she said.
“Where are we going to go from here? I think we need good communications between the board members. No one called me to discuss the motion. I think we have to have better communications. No committees. The whole board must make this decision,” she said.
“If the motion had specifics, I might have voted for it. But I need to know what schools are going to be consolidated. Are we going to invite (the city of Norton) in? If so, where will the school be located? How are we going to finance them? Are we going to do priority building or are we going to build them all at once? I may have more questions as we start working toward a detailed plan.”
Consolidation is coming, and folks need to accept the inevitable and start thinking about moving forward, Cornett said.
“I think as we progress with consolidation, we will need community involvement to come up with a mascot, colors and school names (for three new high schools),” she said. “I do. I think we have to have three schools. Yes, we have to have three schools. I’m in favor of consolidation and always have been. But how many studies are you going to do? People are tired of studies.”