Hancock County school board debates decision to relocate

NEW CUMBERLAND — The Hancock County Board of Education must make a decision soon on a plan to move the district’s central offices, although new questions are being raised about the wisdom of such a move.

The board voted in September to move all the administrative offices from the New Cumberland Municipal Building to the John D. Rockefeller IV Career Center by next summer.

But construction on the new offices is scheduled to start in December and will take until July 2017, the board learned at Monday’s work session. Much of the work will be done in-house, with assistance from a contractor.

The move is necessitated by the city of New Cumberland wanting to increase the monthly rent and have a three-year commitment from the board.

The district pays the city $3,000 a month under a lease agreement that was renegotiated earlier this year. The city covers the cost of utilities and wants to increase the rent to $3,500 a month. It previously was $4,000 a month.

The school district’s central offices currently occupy the entire first floor of the 77-year-old municipal building. Formerly an elementary and junior high school, the building has been in the city’s possession since about 2002, when the school district sold the brick structure for a negligible amount.

The current board, and previous boards, have discussed similar moves, partly because of the lack of access and parking space around the building. The current lease expires on June 30, 2017.

On Monday, Facilities and Maintenance Director Mark Dziatkowicz presented a plan for creating space on the second floor of the Career Center for the administrative offices. Such a plan would cost $85,000, not including construction of additional parking space, he said.

Although it took no action on the plan, the board approved the move in September with the understanding that no classroom or lab space would be taken away from the Career Center’s programs.

“We want to be able to offer what the community wants and needs,” Superintendent Kathy Kidder-Wilkerson said.

But some Career Center instructors have expressed concerns about the potential loss of space and how the move could affect future growth.

“If you come in and do this to the building, this is going to be permanent. Our growth is going to be limited to what we have,” said Coordinator of Vocational Services Gordon Anderson.

Career Center Director Dan Enich said the staff has been cooperative so far. “They understand the inevitability of this. Their main question is: Could there be another year here where we could look at other options?” he said.

Dziatkowicz said the project will require the nursing area to move a few classes down and across the hall. “Most of the work would then move to the vacated space from the nurses’ existing area,” he said.

Among those attending Monday’s work session were Health Science Education instructors Joan Murray and Wendy DeAngelis, who had practical questions about space for clinical beds and storage.

Dziatkowicz said there will be enough space in the new nursing area for the required six to eight beds. The LPN program, which trains adults, will not be affected by the move, he said.

Board members also had questions, mostly about the potential for future growth. “We all want to preserve the ability to expand,” said board member Caroll Rosenlieb.

“We have to be fiscally sound,” said board member Michelle Chappell. “We don’t want to be in jeopardy of state control or not having the opportunity to grow.”

Board member Tim Reinard, who was the sole “no” vote on the move, reiterated concerns about the cost and feasibility of the move. He suggested the board take the matter back to New Cumberland City Council and sign a one-year lease.

Dziatkowicz noted that the move will pay for itself within a year because the district will save $36,000 a year in rent, $30,000 in labor (for a part-time custodian) and $18,000 in Internet- and phone-related expenses.

While the maintenance and transportation departments are already located at the Career Center, other departments will follow between now and September 2017. Those departments, totaling 22 employees, include the superintendent’s office, the assistant superintendent’s office, student services, special education, finance and technology.

Also Monday, the board:

• Agreed to omit the mineral rights to the properties of the former Broadview, Liberty and Weirton Heights Elementary schools when they are put up for auction at 5 p.m. Dec. 5.

“I’m all in favor of the school retaining those mineral rights,” Rosenlieb said.

The old school buildings were razed following the construction of Weirton Elementary School, which opened in August 2014. Following their demolition, the properties were declared surplus by the school board.

With the exception of one parcel of Weirton Heights Elementary, the board has been unable to sell the properties despite two previous public auctions.

• Discussed potential staff cuts in response to declining student enrollment, but took no action. The school district has lost 172 students between 2012-2016, Kidder-Wilkerson said. The enrollment for fiscal year 2017 is 4,168 students.

• Discussed revising the policy on outside use of school facilities, but took no action. Public comments on the policy revision were accepted through Monday.

Kidder-Wilkerson said that no facility fees will go up as a result of the revision. “There has been a lapse in billing organizations that use the facilities,” she said.

Several organizations have asked for exemptions. Charitable organizations are already exempt, although they must provide proof of at least $1 million in liability insurance.

• Discussed the state’s new School Accountability System, which will assign letter grades from A-F to each public school in West Virginia. The results are supposed to be released today.

• Granted two overnight trip requests to the Oak Glen High School wrestling team — for the Wheeling Park Duals tournament on Dec. 28 and for the OVAC Tournament from Jan. 19-20, both in St. Clairsville, Ohio.

• Approved several policy changes to align them with West Virginia Code.

• Learned that Hancock County was one of only 10 counties in West Virginia to meet all the criteria for special education excellence in 2016.

(Huba can be contacted at shuba@reviewonline.com)