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T-Center proposal passes planning commission

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The controversial drug rehabilitation facility, known as the T-Center, is one step closer to getting built now that its proposed location has been rezoned.

Charleston’s Municipal Planning Commission unanimously voted Wednesday in favor of the change, which will rezone the 45-acre parcel of land from R-4 residential to a medical campus zone.

For a more in-depth look at the commission’s decision, read this Daily Mail article by local government reporter Matt Murphy.

The T-Center has been heralded as a game-changer in the area’s fight against drug abuse. It will be the first free-standing residential treatment facility of its kind in West Virginia.

While many have supported the center’s pledge to “change lives, rebuild families and support people who suffer from the disease of abuse,” its location has elicited outrage from several community members who claim its presence will bring unwanted drug activity to the neighborhood and nearby Capital High School.

People also are upset with the way the Kanawha County Board of Education gifted the land to the center instead of leasing or selling it to fund a new football stadium or facility upgrades to Capital High. The property was last appraised in 2008 to be worth $495,000, but has not received any formal offers in more than a decade.

The center still needs to raise $10 million before construction can begin. To date, $1.5 million has been raised, and center officials expect to be fully funded within the next 18 months.

For more background information on the T-Center and how it came to be, read this article.

State embargo delays student test score release

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An embargo halting the release of student standardized test scores will remain in effect until all county data is returned and validated, a Department of Education spokesperson said Thursday.

Westest results, which typically are shared with county boards of education in the summer, must first be verified before their release to the public. The process has taken longer than expected this year and has been the source of much frustration for local school officials.

The department has blamed the months-long delay on new digital testing methods. This was the first year the test was administered solely online, an endeavor that also experienced widespread problems.

“The worst thing we can do is release something and it be wrong,” said Liza Cordeiro, the department’s communications director. She later added the department exercises caution when dealing with student information.

The delay, however, has irritated local school officials.

During a Kanawha County Board of Education meeting Tuesday, board President Robin Rector said the department is to blame, not the counties.

Schools boards use the data to determine which schools need intervention and inform teachers what subjects need more attention.

Cordeiro said school boards should already have their results though.

At the board’s meeting Tuesday, Kanawha County Deputy Superintendent Tom Williams said the embargo could be lifted as early as Thursday. While the moratorium continues, Rector said she would be surprised if the results aren’t issued in time for board members to discuss them at their next curriculum meeting on Dec. 1.

Last year, the test results were released in early September and revealed statewide gains in reading and math proficiency.

Kanawha County also showed improvement. More than 40 percent of county schools were given a “success” ranking, which is the highest designation in the department’s new school accountability system.

The rankings are designed to identify areas where schools may be struggling. A success label is given only when a majority of students meet academic benchmarks and the school meets attendance, graduation and achievement goals.

This is the last year Westest scores will be released by the department. Starting this spring, the state will switch to the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced Assessment tests.

Library to collect yard signs after election

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The Kanawha County Public Library announced today that each local branch will collect and recycle campaign yard signs used to promote the library’s funding levy.

Starting Wednesday, “Loving My Library” signs can be dropped off in designated areas at each Kanawha County branch where they will be stored for reuse or be recycled.

Library supporters have distributed thousands of yard signs and brochures around the county to raise awareness for the levy, which will return the system to full funding status should it pass.

Going into today’s election, library officials are “cautiously optimistic” about the levy passing and thankful for the support of patrons through the years.

“We greatly appreciate all of the people in Kanawha County who have supported the library levy by putting signs in their yards and neighborhoods,” said Alan Engelbert, library director.

If the levy passes, annual property taxes in Kanawha County will increase by about $16 dollars for residents with homes and cars with assessed values of $100,000 and $15,000, respectively. Should voters turn down the levy, the library will face a budget shortfall of about $3 million and likely will close several branches.

The levy is on the back of the ballot with a detailed description of what it is funding.

Polls are open until 7:30 p.m.

Library levy campaign underway

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The Loving My Library campaign will hand out 1,000 yard signs and 10,000 brochures before the levy vote in November.
The Loving My Library campaign will hand out 1,000 yard signs and 10,000 brochures before the levy vote in November.

Kanawha County Library supporters quietly started a campaign last week they hope will encourage voters to approve a levy that will help fund the library system.

The vote isn’t until November 4, but supporters are confident their early start will help secure a victory and return the library to full funding.

This weekend, yard signs were placed around the county. At first sight, they may not make much sense, but they redirect to the “Loving My Library” website, which has plenty of information about the levy and its impact on voters.

Loving My Library was started by the Vote Yes for Libraries Committee and has been labeled a grassroots movement by supporters. It focuses on people sharing their stories about the library through word-of-mouth, video or social media. It’s a stark contrast to campaigning efforts for last year’s failed library levy, which saw school board member Pete Thaw actively campaigning against it even though the levy would have generated additional support for schools. The levy was overwhelmingly defeated in a special election.

This time, the library owns the message. The levy, while supported by the Kanawaha County Board of Education, will only benefit the library. George Manahan, the Loving My Library campaign manager, is confident it will be successful and thinks the group’s message will connect with voters whether they use library resources or not.

It may prove difficult to convince voters to approve a new tax, but the levy is actually quite modest. Should the levy pass, annual property taxes will increase about $16 for someone who owns a home and vehicle with assessed values of $100,000 and $15,000, respectively. In total, the levy will generate $3 million in annual support and is set to bring in about $18 million over the length of the tax.

If it doesn’t pass, branches could be closed, staff could be laid off and library hours could be cut.

The campaign is giving out free resources and is accepting donations. Visit www.lovingmylibrary.com for more information about the campaign, the levy and how to become involved.

Drug rehab center causes community debate

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Community members are organizing efforts to oppose the construction of a drug rehabilitation center near Capital High School with claims that county agencies have agreed to give money to the project without voter input.

The construction project gained momentum last week when the Kanawha County Board of Education voted to donate 50 acres of property to the T-Center, a proposed residential treatment facility developed by the Kanawha Valley Fellowship Home.

While the center was discussed at only one meeting, board members and Superintendent Ron Duerring spoke about the proposal ahead of time, assistant superintendent Thomas Williams said.

The 4-0 decision was met with fierce criticism in the following days, something board President Robin Rector did not expect to happen.

She said the backlash can be owed to a lack of communication.

“People didn’t hear about this because it was the summer,” she said. “And it just so happened that pieces of this were finalized when school started and people were paying more attention.

“If I have a regret, it’s that we didn’t spend more meetings discussing this,” Rector said. “We probably could have and should have spent more time communicating what this was.”

School board officials don’t see their decision as something that warrants controversy, though.

Rector said the board saw a need in the community and decided to jump on the opportunity to make use of unused land in a positive way.

Good intentions have not swayed the opinions of parents and others who oppose the deal. Some worry the proximity of the center could harm students by bringing unwanted drug activity into the area.

Rector said she understands the concerns people have, but guarantees students will be safe because patients at the center will be on “lock down” with limited visitors privileges. While the center is across the street from Capital High, it will sit on a more secluded tract, further up the hill.

Rector also said people who suggest the center will bring drugs to Capital demean the school, as well as its students, teachers and staff.

“It’s sad that people would make a connection,” she said. “This doesn’t have anything to do with Capital. This is about a piece of property owned by the board.”

Others oppose the project because the board donated the land instead of selling it to fund facility upgrades or build a football field for the school.

The land was last appraised in 2008 at nearly $500,000, but the property sat on the market for more than a decade with no buyers.

“That would have been our first choice, but the market has to be there,” Rector said. “There has to be a buyer.”

While the board didn’t lose money on the land through property taxes, Rector said donating the property was the right business decision. Because the land will be turned over to the T-Center, the county will now be able to collect taxes.

“That’s potential revenue coming back into our system.”

At their last meeting, board members were uniform in their praise for the center even though Pete Thaw chose not to vote due to a conflict of interest. His son was involved in the project development.

Members noted the center’s potential to educate youth and families afflicted by substance abuse. West Virginia has one of the highest overdose rates in the country.

The school board isn’t the only county agency to consider partnering with the T-Center.

The Kanawha County Commission was expected to pledge $200,000 to the $10 million project at its meeting Thursday, but opted at the last minute to postpone the decision until a center representative can discuss the proposal with the Capital High community.

Commissioner Dave Hardy agreed to table the motion, but said the commission will continue to work with the T-Center to raise awareness about the proposal.

A railroad that connects us all

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I recently wrote about a group of Kanawha County students who rode a special New York Central passenger train to school in the early- to mid-1900s. Riders who are still living are now in their 70s and 80s. While their memories dim with age, they fondly remember their time on the train like it was yesterday.

After days of research, talking to a dozen riders and hiking through the woods surrounding little hillside communities like Quick and Coco searching for the remaining tracks, I realized there was more to this story than what could be contained in one article, which I have linked below for those who have yet to read it.

Former students remember train ride to school.

Once the story printed, I started getting phone calls from people who rode the train, relatives and others who had information or stories to tell.

It pained me to know several wonderful anecdotes had to be left out of the story, but getting a flood of new stories made it clear I had to do a follow-up. These stories are too good not to be told.

Christine Quinn, 71, called me the day the story printed and told me she was one of the hundreds of kids who rode the train. She also had one of the most heart-warming stories I’ve ever heard.

When she was a young girl, she would board the train in Quick and ride it to Blakeley, where her two friends, Gayle and Deanna Ryans, lived. She said she and her friends had an agreement to take turns riding the train so they could spend one night a week with each other. One week, Quinn would ride to Blakeley, and then her friends would come to her house in Quick the next week.

“That was the only form of communication we had,” she said.

The girls did this until the train was decommissioned in 1959, after which, the trio lost contact.

Without the aid of telephones or social media, Quinn essentially stopped seeing her best friends despite living only 10 miles apart.

But what’s a good story without a reunion?

Quinn, who now lives in St. Albans with her husband John, said she went to introduce herself to a new neighbor recently. Expecting to just welcome her to the neighborhood, Quinn instead was reunited with an old friend.

Quinn didn’t realize it at first, but her new neighbor was the younger sister of her two childhood friends. Through the simple gesture of saying “hello,” Quinn was able to reconnect with her friends through their sister. She said they now see each other regularly.

There are many more stories left to be told, which I will save for another day, but one thing is certain: without that train, many life-long friendships never would have been formed.

It connected people then, and it still connects them today.

Share your back-to-school photos with the Daily Mail

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Today is the first day of school for Kanawha County, and it’s bound to be an exciting year.

First, we have the opening of the new Edgewood Elementary School, which has been termed a school of the future. Employed with progressive, project-based learning, the entire county is watching and hoping this new direction will help students excel in one of the lowest-performing districts.

There’s also the pending rollout of the county’s iPad program. Teachers and principals received their devices this summer and were given the opportunity to attend training seminars to get them ready to employ technology in the classroom. Students won’t get their iPads until later in October, but school officials are already excited about the changes they are seeing.

Lastly, there are policy changes regarding the school calendar. This is the first year that the Board of Education can schedule make-up days after the scheduled last-day-of-school if the county fails to meet the mandated 180 days of in-school instruction. The new policy allows the board to schedule class until June 30. While it is unlikely to happen, the board may also cancel spring break if the required days can’t be made up in June.

With all the changes set to come this year, it’s easy to lose focus on what’s most important — the students. So, we at the Daily Mail are asking you to share your back-to-school photos with us so we can catalog them here for everyone else to see.

Students, are you happy to be reunited with friends? Snap a picture and send it our way. Parents, are you especially proud of the school supplies you were able to get for an insanely good deal? That’s a picture we want to see.

Ours is the culture where there’s a themed selfie for each day of the week. So, I’m sure you and your children have back-to-school photos on your phone that you are dying to share but not sure how best to do that.

So, here’s what you can do. Like the Charleston Daily Mail on Facebook and send us your back-to-school photos. If you have Twitter,  tweet them to @charleywest or @wvschools. You say you’ve graduated from text-based social media and prefer the uninhibitedness of Instagram? Tag @charleywestv in your post. Or, if you’re old-school like me and feel more comfortable using email, you can send them to sam.speciale@dailymailwv.com. Please include names, ages, grade level and the school your child attends.

The first day of school is always an exciting time, but let’s keep that level of enthusiasm going throughout the rest of the year.

Good luck students, and have a great school year Kanawha County!

School board election 2014

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An off-year primary election seldom stirs up the interest a presidential election does — school board elections even more so.

But, the school board election is one of the most important ones a voter can participate in according to Pete Thaw, a five-term member of the Kanawha County Board of Education and its current president.

“The board of education is kind of left behind, and people forget we spend 70 percent of every tax dollar in Kanawha County,” Thaw said in an interview about the many issues the school board is facing and could face in the future.

While Thaw consistently is the lead vote-getter, he faces several newcomers who have the potential to unseat him and inject the board with new ideas.

Ryan White, Vic Sprouse, Tracy White and Curtis Robinson are all parents of children in the school system and want to see positive changes made for the betterment of all students. Calvin McKinney also seeks to make improvements, but is by far the most experienced of the new candidates with 40 years as a teacher and principal.

Also running is Becky Jordon, a three-term board member seeking re-election. While her attempt to enact a teacher dress code policy this year was met with heated opposition, she expects excellence from students and teachers alike.

The school board sets the school calendar as well as policies that affect more than students and teachers. While its five members do oversee the school system, they are also the most powerful policy makers at the local level.

In the words of Thaw himself: Voters should have an interest in the board and get involved “regardless of who gets elected.”

There’s still a few hours left until we know which of the seven candidates will take the three open seats. For live coverage of the school board election, follow @charleywest and @wvschools on Twitter.