Photo credit: youngamerican, CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s hard to find an arena closer to people’s hearts than their schools.  In Nicholas County, West Virginia, despite shrinking enrollment and tight budgets, the rival high schools in Richwood and Summersville have served as the centers of civic community life.  So it wasn’t surprising that a proposal to consolidate the schools erupted in controversy and intense conflict. 

School Flooding Spurs Plan to Consolidate

In June 2016, historic flooding destroyed three schools in the county – Richwood High School, Richwood Middle School, and Summersville Middle School. Richwood, once a booming logging town, had witnessed gradual economic decline over decades. By the time of the flooding, Richwood High School, built for more than 1000 students, served fewer than 400, while the only other high school – in Summersville, near the center of the county – served close to 700 students.

In response to the floods, the County Board of Education proposed a plan to consolidate the county’s five middle and secondary schools – the three damaged county schools along with the other high school and its separate Vocational Education Center – into one campus near Summersville.  School district leaders argued that consolidation was inevitable, given the struggle to adequately fund the district’s underutilized schools.  Co-locating the county’s vocational center with its high schools could also increase enrollment in career-preparedness programs, which was as low as 17% in a county where only about half of graduates go on to college.  Since funding to rebuild the schools would come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with additional support from the state of West Virginia, the school district saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a state-of-the-art educational campus that they felt could better meet all students’ academic and enrichment needs. 

Sparks Fly as Some Protest School Closings

As required by state law, the county ran a set of public hearings to explain the plan and allow for public comment. In Richwood, they encountered fierce disapproval. Opponents argued that closing the Richwood schools would create a barrier to economic recovery there, undermine parental school involvement, and damage community spirit. Many felt that since the bulk of the loss was in Richwood, the replacement schools should go to Richwood, not be relocated to Summersville. Community leaders launched a multi-front campaign to fight the plan, filing a lawsuit against the county, building a social media platform, and engaging political support, including from the recently-elected governor who had expressed opposition to consolidation.  In the spring of 2017, the West Virginia State Board of Education rejected the plan, arguing that the county board had not adequately considered alternative options or ensured that consolidation was in the best interest of all students, specifically those in Richwood.

The dispute then moved to the courts, with a round of lawsuits and appeals, and into a bitter media battle. The rivalry between the two communities heated up, and conflict and mistrust between Richwood and the county school board bled into every interaction. When the state supreme court ruled in the summer of 2017 to uphold the state board’s rejection, the court charged the state and county to work together to find a plan that both could accept.  FEMA reached out to CBI to assist the agency, the State of West Virginia, and the Nicholas County School Board in finding a way forward.

CBI Undertakes Complicated Mediation Process

In the fall of 2017, Stacie Smith, Senior Mediator and Director of Workable Peace, led a CBI team that began with an extensive assessment, conducting confidential interviews and focus groups with more than 80 key stakeholders, including elected and appointed officials; agency leaders at the state, county, and local level; community leaders; and alumni, parents, and residents of Nicholas County.  After drafting findings and recommendations, CBI presented a proposed process to a joint public meeting of the West Virginia State Board of Education and the Nicholas County Board of Education. In early 2018, the governor sponsored the process to convene the key parties for a series of confidential mediation sessions, occurring before and after a large public meeting, to seek an acceptable agreement. 

Due to the complexities of this case, the deep-set positions of parties, and the high stakes for the county and state, there were many interesting consensus-building challenges. A few of the most salient follow.

Who Comes to the Table, and Why?

Consensus-building best practices call for a process that brings together all key stakeholders to seek mutual gains solutions.  However, this is not always realistic, or possible.  In this case, CBI’s assessment found that a mediation process that included Richwood leaders – those most affected by the consolidation – would not be viable, for several reasons. The school board was not legally required to obtain agreement from the local community, and members understandably objected to a mediation process that included any parties other than those with legal authority: themselves and the West Virginia Board of Education.  Furthermore, even if other parties had been willing to include Richwood leaders, the assessment clearly demonstrated that a compromise between the maximalist positions of the community leaders – who called for nothing less than the full replacement of Richwood schools – and the views of the school district was unlikely. Such a convening would have been, in professional terms, one without a Zone of Potential Agreement.

The best proxy for direct Richwood engagement was the state Board of Education and the West Virginia School Building Authority. While these parties’ values were not identical to those of Richwood, they did share interests of safeguarding viable Richwood middle and high schools, and preserving opportunities for future economic recovery and population growth.  Knowing that Richwood’s highest concerns would be represented helped to mitigate the lack of direct involvement, although this did not necessarily assuage Richwood leaders, who remained frustrated by their lack of direct involvement and therefore skeptical of the outcomes.

Addressing Community Mistrust

In addition to surfacing potential pathways to an agreement, the assessment identified a need for the county to heal deeply frayed relationships and mistrust: rifts between not only the Richwood community and the school district, but also among county residents who found themselves on opposite sides of the consolidation fight. Consolidation opponents felt their voices were not heard by the Nicholas County school board, while consolidation supporters believed the local board was not heard by the state board. Both sides forwarded accusations of corruption, rigged processes, and bad faith by the other.

To respond to this need, CBI recommended: public transparency about the mediation process, opportunities for public dialogue during the mediation, and a subsequent community dialogue process to give all stakeholders a voice on the implementation details such as school designs. To improve transparency, the assessment report was presented at a public meeting and shared widely by the press and on social media, as were the official mediation protocols.  Each mediation session concluded with a written public update approved by both sides. 

During the mediation, a public meeting, attended by more than 150 people, was held to provide an opportunity for county residents to weigh in on the potential outcome. The mediation team presented its initial proposal – maintain K-12 options in Richwood and build a comprehensive middle, high, and technical school near Summersville, with students assigned based on family choice – and then allowed attendees to express their views on the proposed plan in small, facilitated groups. While many participants expressed frustration that the proposal lacked details, such as school locations and size, post-meeting media reports suggested that the gathering did in fact begin to bridge the trust divide. Many participants reported that they had had an opportunity to have civil conversations with fellow citizens, share concerns, and even find some common ground.  The most significant concern raised repeatedly at the meeting was the need for vocational options for Richwood schools – a concern that was ultimately addressed in the final plan.

Contentious Parties Come Together on a Plan

Last spring, the Boards of Education for the state and county both approved a school reconstruction plan that included rebuilding Richwood Middle and Richwood High into a shared facility with the existing elementary school, and a new comprehensive middle and high school and career technical center near Summersville. The plan called for family choice in selecting schools, construction designs that would enable future expansion, and a promise for several vocational opportunities for Richwood High School.  In September, the Scope of Work for this plan was ratified by the Nicholas County Board of Education, the West Virginia State School Building Authority, and FEMA.

Since the agreement was signed, the level of conflict has diminished significantly. Relations between the state and county boards have been warm and constructive, and many in the community are relieved that the battle is over. But for some, particularly in Richwood, deep skepticism remains.  A county board initiative to involve local Richwood representatives in the school design process mostly fell flat, and mistrust between the county board and Richwood leaders remains high.  Nonetheless, many opportunities remain for recovery. As construction moves forward, county board actions that demonstrate its commitment to successful schools in Richwood can help open the door, and authentic opportunities for two-way engagement may begin to heal wounds on both sides.  Meanwhile, families across the county can look forward to their children attending school in permanent, new buildings.

Photo credit: youngamerican, CC BY-SA 3.0