Wood BOE approves Swope to build Williamstown school

A woman stands outside the fence at the Fenton Art Glass factory in Williamstown, taking a photo as demolition continues on the building. A new Williamstown-Waverly Elementary School will be built on the site and is expected to open in 2020. (Photo by Michael Erb)

PARKERSBURG — The low bidder for construction of a new elementary school in Williamstown was approved Tuesday after school board members said they were warned rejecting the bid could result in a lawsuit.

The Wood County Board of Education on Tuesday approved Bluefield-based Swope Construction to build the Williamstown-Waverly Elementary School at a cost of $12.9 million. The school will be built on the site of the old Fenton Art Glass factory and gift shop in Williamstown. Officials hope to have the new school open by 2020.

At the board’s last meeting in March, members expressed concerns with the company after critics alleged issues with a school construction project in Wayne County and that Swope used out-of-state and non-union workers. Several community members also voiced concerns, encouraging the board to choose a company which would use local union labor.

At that meeting, members indicated they would reject Swope’s bid and instead go with the next-highest bid by Grae-Con Construction, a difference of about $400,000.

But during Tuesday’s meeting, board members said they would have to go with the lowest bidder and expressed frustration prior to voting 4-0 to approve Swope. Board member Jim Asbury was absent and did not vote.

Board member Ron Tice made the motion to accept the bid, but choked back tears as he addressed local union and labor representatives in the audience.

“I can’t let it go by,” Tice said. “It really bothers me that the local people don’t get the chance to work on this school, but our hands are tied. My dad was a union worker. He really took pride in his work. It really does upset me.”

Board President Lawrence Hasbargen said the board went to Charleston-based law firm Bowles Rice for advice, as well as talking to a representative from the state Department of Labor.

“After speaking with our attorney (with Bowles Rice) and the state and everyone else we could get ahold of, they said ‘you don’t have much of a choice,'” Hasbargen said. “All I can say is I’m sorry we couldn’t go through with what we wanted to do.”

Superintendent John Flint, however, said the board had the opportunity to choose a different company and did not. Flint said a representative of architectural and engineering firm ZMM, which oversees projects for the school system, told the board it did not have to go with the lowest bidder.

Dave Ferguson with ZMM spoke to the board March 27 and told the board it could choose a different company, but also said the low bidder could take legal action against the school system.

Flint spoke to the local union and labor representatives Tuesday as they were leaving after the vote, pointing blame at the school board.

“I’m bothered that you good people had to come through this two weeks in a row and this is the end result,” Flint said. “The board has to make a decision, and I understand that. Mr. Ferguson was very clear, the board can choose any of the bidders they want, they have an option to do that. Any of them. And I want to make that clear, because that is important.”

After the meeting, Hasbargen said legal counsel told the board the low bidder could and likely would sue the school system if members had chosen to award the contract to the next-highest bidder.

The board Tuesday also approved a plan to give a portion of the old Williamstown Elementary School to the City of Williamstown.

City officials made the request at a board meeting last month. The plan would call for the main part of the old elementary school to be demolished, while the “new” section, which includes the gymnasium, cafeteria, library and some classrooms, would be left intact. Officials hope to renovate that building into a community center.

The approved motion included stipulations the city would be responsible for demolition of the main building, could not sell the property and must use it to benefit the community.

In other business, the board met behind closed doors for nearly an hour Tuesday, discussing three personnel issues which were later brought to the board for a public vote. Two involved waiving nepotism rules, which prohibit family members from working in positions of authority over one another. Those rules are occasionally waived in situations where the school system does not believe there is a direct conflict of interest.

The board approved exemptions for positions at VanDevender Middle School and Williamstown High School.

The board also voted to suspend Wood County Schools aide Norman Morehead for five days without pay. No additional details were given, though the employee’s name was used when the vote was taken in open session.

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