Secrets and FOIA

INCOMPLETE FOIAs

The problems with the siting of the green school in Monongalia County go far beyond air pollution, terrible as that problem is.

For example, neither the Monongalia County Board of Education (BOE) nor WVU are complying with FOIA laws (Freedom of Information Act). We know this because Mon BOE releases some emails with WVU that WVU fails to release, and vice versa. All very relevant emails that both parties are legally bound to release, per FOIA requests. Their FOIA compliance is lousy. Their FOIA research methods are lousy: mere “keyword” searches by an IT employee, in the case of WVU, according to WVU. The BOE’s approach? The FOIAed parties are not held remotely accountable for turning over what they know best, their own correspondence (which was the City of Morgantown’s approach). Better yet would be a combination of these methods and a court assigned independent investigator.

For just a couple examples: WVU failed to release certain email discussions with Mon Schools about green school site appraisals. We know this correspondence exists because Mon Schools released those emails. Likewise, Mon Schools failed to release emails with WVU about green school site possibilities. We know the correspondence exists because WVU released it. Apparently outside investigators are required to ensure Mon Schools’ and WVU’s full compliance with FOIA laws.

Some of the troubling information we’ve learned via FOIA:

Secrectly, the BOE is planning a school of 70,000 square feet, which by state regulations could hold no fewer than 700 students; publicly the school is to be a “small” school of 400-450 students. Architect Ted Shriver in an email to superintendent Frank Devono about the green school, June 2010:

“According to my preliminary calculations the SBA school is 40,500 square feet but to meet your needs it’s really about 65,000 square feet and as discussed last week we may approach a 70,000 square foot building with adequate space and expansion.”

Secretly, the school is intended for Woodburn students and “overflow” students from North Elementary (down route 705); publicly the school is a consolidation for Easton Elementary and Woodburn Elementary students. WVU Director of Real Estate Services Shannon Mundell to WVU Vice President Narvel Weese:

“Confidentially, the overflow from North [elementary] and [the entire student body of] Woodburn elementary will be placed in this [new green] school.”

Secretly, Mon Schools Superintendent Devono’s original and preferred site is far down route 705 across from the Suncrest Towne Center & Village (on WVU land), much nearer to North Elementary; publicly this site has never been mentioned and is not listed as one of the 19 sites considered by the BOE, nor is any other site down 705. WVU Director of Real Estate Services Shannon Mundell wrote to WVU Vice President of Administration and Finance Narvel Weese:

“He [Devono] is needing approximately 8-10 acres (10 preferred for bus turnaround). He was originally looking at the area across from Damon’s…”

10 acres for “bus turnaround”? State policy prefers only 7 acres for a school of 450 students and could grant a waiver for such a school to be built on much less acreage. So, 10 pricey acres, for buses? Seem highly unlikely. Far more likely: publicly unacknowledged future expansion plans.

Privately, the BOE hired Puccio & York (Larry Puccio, Governor Manchin’s “longtime friend and [former] chief of staff”) to appraise the Mileground school site, which came in at $1 million for 7 acres; publicly only WVU’s appraisal at $2.3 million has been mentioned and is the selling price. Toss in $650,000 (at least) for mine mitigation, that’s $3 million on land alone. Mon Schools could have approached renovating Woodburn for that amount, sent the 176 Easton students (111 students in 2005) to nearby Cheat Lake elementary (with tons of extra room because an entire middle school population was just moved from the premises), sold the Easton schoolgrounds and building and used that money to expand at North, all without needing a cent from the state, let alone $11.5 million. Or a mere fraction of the $11.5 million SBA green school grant.

WVU was delighted to keep the site secret until mid-March. In early March, WVU Director of Real Estate Services Shannon Mundell wrote to Superintendent Devono:

It was nice to see that the site has remained confidential in the newspaper. Very surprised. :)

Internally, WVU notes of the school “location debate…we are trying hard to stay out of it” … even as they disallow reasonable quality WVU school land for a possible site and offer instead, very low quality, inappropriate school sites. That’s staying out of the location debate but not staying out of the location process and decision, far from it. In other words, little or no responsibility to the public even as they partly drive the location of the school. Narvel Weese adds in a March 11 email to Provost Russell Dean:

“I would like to keep the University out of the neighborhood school debate.”

Based on the available public figures, we learn that the two route 705 elementaries, Suncrest and North, are both operating over capacity. Thus the need to redirect the overflow (and then some) from North Elementary to somewhere else, and the overflow from Suncrest to North. The state needs to respond to an inquiry about whether or not operating overcapacity is in any way legal, let alone a fire hazard. What is the penalty for the violation of operating over capacity?

It’s like the Keystone Kops. New FOIA requests have been filed with WVU. The WV Department of Highways has recently been FOIAed in regard to the school and the impending road expansion. (Robert Pennington of the DoH responded not by email but at delay by paper, stating that we “may contact” two DoH officials “to arrange to inspect and obtain copies of [the]…documents,” and curiously the one official had never heard of the FOIA request and the other (Richard Warner) has not replied to a message.) [Update Aug 16: I have since had lengthy conversations with Richard Warner. He is professional and helpful. He mentions that he is uncertain how well roundabouts would work out versus traffic lights at the intended school site, that it remains an unknown but that roundabouts may be the best way to go. He also mentioned that the school zone speed limit which would go in there is an issue, not ideal, and that enforcement could be problematic. He says the DoH can only work to accommodate whatever goes in there. An updated analysis from ENTRAN is expected August 18.]

And of course we intend to follow up to see what our options are for forcing both the BOE and WVU to actually fully comply with our initial FOIA requests….

The two elementary schools nearest Woodburn are also pushing their capacity limits. One is at 96 percent (Mountainview), the other is 85 percent (Brookhaven) but so tight it has just been granted millions for an addition. Woodburn has a very small catchment basin in the direction of these two schools so could and should readily expand its catchment to relieve some of the crowding pressures there, but instead is slated to be closed in two years.

Why all the overcrowding? Because Mon schools has not only dropped from 15 elementaries to 11 in a mere 5 years, but because the two new elementaries are already near capacity and are remotely located beyond town far away from not only the worst crowding but town itself. And when Woodburn and Easton close in two years, the district will be down to 10 elementaries, from 15 to 10 in seven years, thus the need for an ever bigger “green” school situated on a thin strip of land with little more than 5 usable acres, undermined, at a busy and congested intersection. Mon Schools needs two new elementaries, not one. One at Woodburn and one for Easton and North/Suncrest overflow. Instead Mon Schools is going to burn through $15 million and still be crowded or overcrowded. And horribly sited. It’s insane.

And this from a FOIA of the county:

WV Department of Highways official Richard Warner to Metropolitan Planning Organization Director Bill Austin:

“Just listened to a replay of you and [David] Bruffy [General Manager, Mountain Line Transit Authority]…. Very nice jobs, both of you. Nice dance you did around Kay’s question about the traffic effects of the new school on the Mileground.” Austin’s reply: “Thanks, I learned to waltz from the best.”

Mileground businessmen have been getting special meetings with the DoH regarding the road expansion options. Parents of children at the intended school have gotten no special meetings. The state is going to put that 705/119 intersection up on the field right alongside the school, or vice versa.

The school closing and siting process has been horrid and wrong, and yet the consequences of it all look to be even worse.

Why should the State Board of Education not reject Monongalia County Schools’ Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan (CEFP), which calls for the closing of Woodburn Elementary? Obviously a school is desirable and needed on those school grounds.

Why should the WVU Board of Governors not reject the scandalous sale of Mileground land to Monongalia County Schools? What a legacy that would be to cap WVU President Clements’ first year.

Why should the State Board of Education not reject the awarding of the School Building Authority’s $11.5 million green school grant to Monongalia County Schools? Essentially the green school project is irresponsible, negligent, deceitful. As unprofessional as it gets.

It’s time to pull the plug on the green school on the Mileground. Long since.

And the Monongalia County School Board needs to get its collective head out of the muck and move quickly to not unconscionably prolong the longstanding abuse and neglect of Woodburn and Easton elementaries.

Posted in Uncategorized. 1 Comment »

One Response to “Secrets and FOIA”

  1. Rachel Martin Says:

    I was wrong. (See, I can admit it … . :) ) THIS is a fantastic recap. Great writing, [whoever]. Now, can you submit this to, say, the Charleston Gazette, as a guest editorial? (Or somesuch?)


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