At the beginning of what would be a day-long, closed-door mediation, Judge Mike Gamble explained to county leaders that this voluntary and collaborative process means they, the parties who know the most about their dispute, have the opportunity to reach resolution rather than a trial judge who knows the least.
"You need the people who know the most about it," Gamble, a Supreme Court-certified mediator, said Friday in opening remarks to Dickenson County School Board, Dickenson County Board of Supervisors and Dickenson County Industrial Development Authority.
The retired judge said he would work as hard as he could to help them reach resolution. The group he works with, Gamble told them, has an 85 percent success rate.
Some 10 hours later, Dickenson County leaders couldn't come together to bring an end to their stalemate over where to build a new elementary school and who's actually in control of that decision.
"I wish we could have reached a mediated agreement," Gamble said as the three groups reconvened. "I think the parties may well have been closer than it seems they are," he also observed, but noted he was the only one who got to talk to everyone to hear what was being said.
The boards did not reach a decision on a school site but did make progress toward that end.
A majority agreed to binding arbitration that potentially could end with a judge making the decision of where to build a school that would replace Sandlick Elementary School in Haysi; that is, if the judge first concludes that decision does not belong exclusively to the school board. The school board majority believes it does and that case law backs them up. But county supervisors and the IDA contend the facilities development agreement the three bodies signed gives joint authority to the group.
Back in open session, IDA attorney Freddie Mullins proposed a way to move forward that had been discussed among attorneys and was drafted as a motion of multiple parts for the individual boards to consider.
First, Mullins explained, the motion would provide for the immediate investment of $8 million in qualified school construction loan funding, referred to as QSCB funds. The parties have not been able to fully agree on the investment strategy and failure to capitalize on the potential interest has exacerbated problems among the three.
Second, the parties would agree to voluntarily move from mediation to binding arbitration on two issues, he continued. The first would be to determine who, under Virginia law, has authority to make the decision on the school location.
Second, he explained, if the school board does not have authority to make the unilateral decision on location and spending of funds from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, then making the decision would be referred to the arbitrator.
Mullins added that they would like to see Judge Gamble conduct the arbitration.
School board attorney Scott Mullins said his board wants to see finality. If an arbitrator make the location decision and it is the site on Upper Backbone Ridge, he said, it has to be understood that the only money available beyond the Corps of Engineers funding is county money, not school board money.
Mullins noted it was almost 7:30 at night and the boards remained at odds, yet the devil is in the details. "We need you as our partners," he said, and to go forward as a county. He said there has to be a good faith effort to make this happen. In a public-private partnership approach, he noted, there could be the potential that supervisors could use the language of the law as a veto, something already discussed among attorneys.
"I don't like to play gotcha law . . . with neighbors and friends," he said. "We can't try to be tricky with this when it's over."
If location is determined by the school board, "we're not ready to make that decision, " he said, noting that the board would need both IDA and supervisors to proceed. "There will be a time when we need to hire someone," he continued, and the school board " needs you guys to be there with interim financing."
Judge Gamble said what he was hearing fully addresses what had been discussed.
Willis District Supervisor Jason Compton said he wanted to make sure everyone would be working together.
If they can get past this hurdle, Scott Mullins said, what they needed was as much of the county engineer's time as they can get.
Dickenson County School Board and Dickenson County Industrial Development Authority both delivered split votes, 3-2.
On the school board, Willis District member Rick Mullins voted against the measure without comment as did Rocky Barton of the Sandlick District. On motion by Lurton Lyle of the Clintwood District, Chair Susan Mullins of the Kenady District and Shanghai Nickles of the Ervinton District delivered majority support.
On the IDA, Larry Yates, also mayor of Haysi, voted no as did new IDA appointee Scott Hillman, also from Haysi. Support came from the majority — Eric Price, Allen Compton, Danny Lambert and Ginger Senter. Talbert Bolling was absent.
Supervisors voted unanimously, on motion by Compton. A second was slow in coming but Ervinton District Supervisor David Yates ultimately made one. It took him even longer to vote to support it, but he did, without comment, as did Kenady District Supervisor Shelbie Willis.
Sandlick District Supervisor Ron Peters was vocal. "In the interest of moving forward and saving the cost of litigation, I will begrudgingly say yes," he said.
Clintwood District Supervisor and Chair David Perry cast the final vote in favor and the meeting promptly adjourned.
Before retiring into closed discussions, Gamble invited attorneys to make some opening remarks.
County Attorney Stephen Mullins said his board wanted to work together and encouraged everyone to keep an open mind, be honest and speak openly to the judge. He concurred that mediation provides some element of control while litigation would put that in someone else's hands. Supervisors support the Upper Backbone site, feeling as if that location had been promised to the Haysi community.
The IDA's position is a little different, Freddie Mullins said. "Our goal is progress, to move the ball down the field," he said. It won't work if they don't have three things — an open mind, logical think and "one thing I can't stress enough is a sense of urgency," he said. The decision has been delayed two and a half years, he said, and the ensuing gridlock has the county "as fractured as I have ever seen it."
This is not a zero sum game for supervisors versus the school board, Mullins said, adding only the county stands to gain. "We have 25 and a half million reasons why to do this today," he said.
The school board attorney acknowledged his board is divided 4-1, with Barton having consistently advocated for a school location in Haysi. If they don't keep three schools open, Barton has argued there would be a loss of school population and the money that goes with it. Perhaps more importantly, Mullins said, Barton has maintained that a Haysi location was the original commitment made a long time ago when the process first started.
Of the remaining four, he said, each member has a slightly nuanced, different position on how they view things.
But last November, when the Thompson and Litton site report put construction cost at Upper Backbone as $2.6 million over budget, the board majority decided to drop that site from consideration and pursue just two sites, one on the Ridgeview campus and one at Clinchco.
Supervisors and IDA, who share check-writing authority with the school board on school construction funds, said they would not got for that.
Mullins said he would take some degree of responsibility for the delays, saying he kept praying the facts would bring us together as a county. "I though we could find a path we could all walk down," he said, but that didn't happen.
The school board's educational philosophy is to try to give each child an equal opportunity to obtain a quality education
While all in the room would agree conceptually, he said, there's a problem in practice. Right now, the school board spends $7,249 per student at Clintwood Elementary School and $7,933 per student at Sandlick Elementary, he pointed out, while it spends $12,505 per student at Ervinton Elementary.
Specifically, the lower enrollment at Ervinton school challenges the board to achieve the fairness and equality goal.
And with 85 percent of budget committed to teacher salary, retirement and health care, he added, there is limited room to work with the remaining parts of budget.
While he believes everyone in the room would "go down swinging for three-school model," he said, they all are life-long residents and also know that, in Dickenson County, the tide come in and the tide goes out.
They are doing pretty well with a pro-coal administration, he said, but if the tide changes and the school division suffers cuts, "the ability to keep the three school model going is limited."
They have $24.5 million to build a school and everyone wants to get this right, he said. The school board believes in moving toward a more adaptable school for the future, he said.
With enrollment and population on a 45-degree downward trend, he also said, you hope it will level out, and maybe it will.
But, at end of day, he said, the school board majority wants everyone to accept the economic reality that we can't continue on with a three- school model if the county encounters much more of an economic headwind.