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Board of education candidates in spotlight in Jefferson Co.

April 03, 2006|By DAVE McMILLION

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - The 12-way race for four seats on the Jefferson County Board of Education heated up Sunday night when a candidate forum focused on issues like a $3.5 million cost overrun for the county's second high school, an allegation that the school system has hired people who know little about public education and issues related to school funding.

The candidates forum, held at the Shepherdstown Fire Department, was organized by the Jefferson County Democratic Executive Committee.

Although the forum focused on races for U.S. Congress, Jefferson County Commission and the state House of Delegates, much of the interest was in the nonpartisan school board race, which will be decided in the May 9 primary election.

Board of education candidates J.J. Cook, Timothy Hayden and Susan Pellish did not attend.

Mike Cassell, chairman of the county's Democratic Executive Committee, read questions from cards which were directed to the candidates.

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About 150 people attended the event.

Incumbent board of education candidate Cheryl Huff was asked when the county's second high school next to the Huntfield development will be completed and what cost overruns have occurred with the project.

Huff said the school is scheduled to open in the fall of next year.

Regarding cost overruns, Huff said the state School Building Authority required the school system to use a cost of $128 per square foot in determining the cost of the school.

Architects have told school officials that the rate needed to be higher, Huff said.

Although the School Building Authority later allowed the square footage cost to be increased to $161, the school system had to use the $128 figure when it put the project out for a bid, Huff said.

Now cost overruns to the new school total about $3.5 million and officials believe much of the overrun can be absorbed with school impact fees, Huff said.

Pete Dougherty, a former board of education member who is seeking a return to the board, said a crisis is developing in the school system. Among several issues he aired, Dougherty said the school system has hired employees who have little experience in public education and it is a "real problem."

Candidates were asked how they would mend fences with the School Building Authority, which doles out funding to county school systems for new schools.

Cassell said Clacy Williams, the executive director of the school building authority, has said Jefferson County has not met certain requirements for funding from the authority.

Board of Education President Lori Stilley, who is seeking re-election, said the problem with the School Building Authority is the agency does not have an objective scoring system to rate projects. Board of Education member Delores Milstead, also running for re-election, said the authority has "unwritten rules" in how it disperses funding.

"We don't know how to play that game," Milstead said.

Huff said the board of education has tried to answer questions from the School Building Authority and added that the problems are statewide.

Candidate Ed "Pootie" Johnson said he is troubled at how the School Building Authority is criticized in the process. Candidate Gary Kable said the current board of education has not been able to get along with the School Building Authority.

That needs to change, Kable said.

"That's what a new board can do," Kable said.

Candidate Mariland Dunn Lee said the process is political.

"You understand that," Lee told the crowd. "We have to play that game," Lee said.

Candidate Sandy Collier said the county cannot mend fences with the School Building Authority until the school system understands what is recommended of it.

Candidate Scott Sudduth said the issues surrounding the School Building Authority need to be addressed quickly. Sudduth said local solutions also need to be explored to get the school system the help it needs.

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