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New lawsuit seeks to keep Waverly School open

Photo by Michael Erb Wood County Board of Education President Justin Raber reads a prepared statement Tuesday concerning a lawsuit by a Waverly resident who says the school system is placing students in danger by closing and consolidating Waverly Elementary School during the COVID-19 pandemic.

PARKERSBURG — The Wood County Board of Education is again the focus of a lawsuit concerning the closure of Waverly Elementary School.

The suit was filed at the end of June in Wood County Circuit Court by Sharon Corbitt, a Waverly resident and outspoken critic of Wood County Schools’ decision to close Waverly Elementary and consolidate it this fall with Williamstown Elementary School in the newly constructed Williamstown-Waverly Elementary School. Waverly was one of four schools, including the old Williamstown Elementary, approved for closure at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

In the suit, Corbitt asks for an immediate injunction to prevent the school closing, saying the consolidation of schools and increased busing of students puts them and families at more risk for COVID-19, also known as coronavirus.

During Tuesday night’s school board meeting, members held a closed-door session to discuss the lawsuit before returning to open session and voting to retain legal counsel.

In a rare move, board President Justin Raber, who is an attorney, read a prepared statement in open session.

“This new lawsuit is draining the board of time, energy and money,” Raber said. “The board is required to waste taxpayer dollars to defend itself against this frivolous litigation.”

Corbitt could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Attorney Pat McFarland ,who is representing Corbitt, said Wednesday the board has “seriously misread” the purpose of the suit, which is to bring up serious health concerns for students returning to school this fall in fewer facilities even as officials stress social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“The lawsuit is not to undo the school closings per se, but to find out specifically what is the opening plan and what they have planned for the children,” McFarland said. “If they need more room in the other schools, why not use the facilities that are already available?”

The lawsuit was filed June 30 and accuses the school system of failing to draft a plan to safely reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 8, the West Virginia Department of Education issued guidance and requirements on school system re-entry plans, and Gov. Jim Justice announced the start of the semester for all West Virginia schools would be pushed back to Sept. 8.

Raber said Tuesday the lawsuit was filed while the school system worked on its re-entry plan, which relied on guidance from the West Virginia Board of Education and the governor’s office.

The school board Tuesday approved a draft re-entry plan for the fall which officials say follows state and federal guidelines. The draft plan can be found through the Wood County Schools app or online at www.woodcountyschoolswv.com.

This marks the second lawsuit filed to keep the school open, Raber said. A lawsuit was filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court in December on behalf of the “Save Waverly Elementary School Association” and other plaintiffs. The suit called for the school to remain open, accusing the Wood County school board and officials of mishandling the school consolidation process. Attorney Fred Clark, a Waverly native with family that attends Waverly Elementary, asked for an immediate injunction to keep the school open. The request was denied by a Kanawha Circuit Court judge in May, though the lawsuit continues in the courts.

Raber said Corbitt was a part of the “Save Waverly Elementary School” group and testified on behalf of the organization in the first lawsuit.

“The filing of this new lawsuit in Wood County appears to be an attempt to forum shop,” Raber said Tuesday. “While the board typically prefers not to comment on pending litigation, the board felt it necessary to make this statement so that the public understands why county resources are being spent in defense of the board’s actions.”

McFarland said Wednesday the idea of forum shopping “is frankly ridiculous,” but he declined to make further comments until the case could go before a judge.

Bowles Rice attorney Aaron Boone, who is representing the school system, said officials have filed to have the injunction dismissed or for the hearing to be taken to Kanawha Circuit Court where information from the previous injunction hearing had been filed.

A hearing on the district’s motion will be held Monday morning in Wood County Circuit Court before Judge J.D. Beane.

Contact Michael Erb at

merb@newsandsentinel.com.

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