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State to intervene at WVSDB
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The state says it will lead a “transformation” for the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind following a review of the schools’ operations.

The plans were announced last week during the State Board of Education’s monthly meeting in Charleston, where Charlene Coburn, a coordinator in the Division of Education’s ESEA department, presented findings of what the department calls a Special Circumstances Review – mostly in closed session.

After the session, the State Board directed Superintendent Clayton Burch to prepare a public report of the findings, which his office says will be ready later this week or next.

The board also directed Burch to appoint an intervention team to work at his direction to lead WVSDB through a litany of changes from payroll practices to residential life and “any other areas he finds to be necessary.”

Areas specifically mentioned include:

• Modernizing facilities;

• Restructuring personnel;

• Refining employment and payroll practices;

• Reallocating financial resources;

• Developing an effective school leadership model;

• Enhancing residential life; and

• Reforming instructional practices to meet the needs of deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind and low-vision students throughout the state.

The state’s Office of Support and Accountability sent a team of 11 to visit the Romney campus the last week of April.

“It was very comprehensive,” Personnel Director Sondra McKenery said.

Superintendent Pat Homberg said she has seen the complete report, but nobody else on campus has.

The tone of the state board agenda and subsequent press release was ominous mentioning “non-compliances” and “corrective actions.” But several of the areas mentioned in the review have already started being addressed this year.

In March, WVSDB announced plans to combine the until-now separate schools for the deaf and the blind. Students up through 5th grade will be together in one building and 6th-12th-graders will be in another.

As part of that restructuring, dozens of staff received either transfer or reduction-in-staff notices.

The combination of the schools was outlined in the 10-year comprehensive educational facilities plan that also included renovations of some buildings and relocation of residential and administrative operations.

The multi-million price tag for the facilities overhaul will be mostly paid for by reallocating the yearly budget.

State Board Policy 2322 provides for a Special Circumstance Review to be performed “upon its determination that circumstances exist that warrant such reviews.” School systems can also request a review.

The on-site review can include verifying data the school reports to the state, examining compliance with state laws and policies, investigating official complaints, or examining local actions if student performance is failing to increase.

More than just ‘Captain’
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And right now? He’s navigating the waters of balance between the 2.

Bell, a Romney transplant from Wrightstown, N.J. and a 1996 Hampshire High grad, traded in small-town living for the Marines after high school, and now, 25 years later, he’s in a new position: Captain of the USS Cheyenne, a Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine.

After accepting the position on Jan. 22 in Pearl Harbor, Bell can confidently say it’s a big job, both commanding the Cheyenne and upholding its strong legacy.

 “It’s great to have a boat with a strong motto and great history,” Bell explained. “I want Cheyenne to be a family that every sailor wants to come to.”

The motto of the submarine is “Ride the Legend,” which stems from Cheyenne’s cowboy history (think Cheyenne, Wyoming). The boat is decorated in old-west fashion, Bell described, with horse statues, doorknockers in the shape of brass arrowheads, with lasso details around the crew’s mess, etc.

He added that the motto and the tradition behind the boat give the crew a little bit of “swagger.”

“Think a cowboy walking into a New York City bar,” he said. “We make an entrance.”

The Cheyenne was commissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1996 and has a crew of about 140 sailors. Bell, now the C.O. of the boat, has to balance his jobs as both “Captain” and “Dad.”

Being away from family, sometimes for months on end, it gives a new meaning to “work-life balance” for Bell, who is both a husband and a father to triplet daughters.

“Balancing family and submarine life is always difficult. I’m often gone for extended periods, and when I’m home, I’m still the Captain,” he commented. “Being gone so often makes you appreciate being home more.”

While Bell might have to be apart from his wife and daughters, he has another family he’s an integral part of: the Cheyenne family.

“The crew bonds,” he explained. “We live in a different era underway. We read books; we play games. There was a bit of an Uno craze a few days ago, and we sit and talk.”

Bell added that the Cheyenne family eases the feeling of being gone.

The longest Bell has been away from his family has been a year, he said, but usually stints on the submarine range from 3 to 6 months long. Additionally, relocating is all a part of the job, and his family is in the process currently of moving from Hawaii to Connecticut.

Bell said that homecomings are always the best, when he returns to his family. His daughters, Juliette, Violet and Charlotte, turn 7 at the end of the month, and he said he likes to focus on them when he’s back home.

“(My daughters) have been able to watch and join in the excitement as the submarine pulls in from a long time away,” he said. “We usually like to plan a mini stay-cation: make pancakes, play with Legos, skateboard, Nerf wars and tons of arts and crafts.”

More often than not, with 80s rock playing in the background (“I may have influenced them,” Bell admitted.).

Games, crafts and “park hopping” (going from playground to playground) is all on the agenda for the triplets when Dad is back, and while Bell said being a dad of 3 girls can definitely be a handful, overall it’s “wonderful.”

    “My wife and I like to say we have been on a ‘playdate’ for the last 7 years,” Bell added.

Protracted civil case goes against Potomac Center
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MOOREFIELD — Potomac Center’s CEO says a $3.5 million civil verdict issued against his facility last month is old news.

Rick Harshbarger points out the case was filed 4 years ago, stemming out of events more than 7 years old.

“This is about yesterday’s Potomac Center, not today’s Potomac Center,” he said late last week. “My philosophy is to always look out the windshield and not the rear view mirror.”

Hardy County jurors ruled in mid-May that the Romney facility must pay $1 million to the parents of 1 child and $2.5 million to the parents of another over the children’s treatment in late 2013 and early 2014.

The 2 sides are due back before Judge Carter Williams on July 8 to present post-trial motions.

Potomac Center’s attorney, David Mincer of Charleston-based Bailey and Wyant said he intends to appeal the verdict to the State Supreme Court.

Beyond that, he said on a phone message, he does not comment about ongoing litigation.  

“Our insurance company hires our attorneys and makes the decisions on settlements,” Harshbarger noted. “We are well represented and we trust in their judgments.”

Attorney Sharon Iskra of the Charleston-based firm Bailey Glaser, who represented the 2 families, did not respond to requests for comment.

The 2 families who won the case filed suit in 2017 charging that Potomac Center did not prevent the abuse of their developmentally disabled children in 2013 and 2014. In addition, they charge the children were neglected because Potomac Center did not provide the services it advertised.

During that time – on Jan. 17, 2014 – the Division of Health and Human Resources shut down the 3 cottages at Potomac Center that housed 24 students in the agency’s core program, temporarily closing it.

The DHHR investigation that ensued found that some children had been neglected and abused. It does not identify the 2 children at issue in this case.

The events of 2013-14 gave rise to 4 criminal cases against employees who had promptly been fired and 2 other civil suits.

This civil suit was filed Sept. 22, 2017, in Kanawha Circuit Court on behalf of children identified as L.K. and D.S. It sought damages from Potomac Center, Harshbarger, Chief Operating Officer Kim Helmstetter and former manager Kevin Helms, one of the 4 who was criminally charged. Helms was later dropped from the lawsuit. 

The complaint claimed L.K. and D.S. were placed at Potomac Center “because of its claim to provide residential assistance and support to children and adults with developmental disabilities,” yet did not receive the services the facility claimed to offer. The plaintiffs said the defendants failed to hire, train and supervise employees so as to prevent the alleged abuses.

The plaintiffs sought actual damages, compensatory damages, emotional distress and annoyance and inconvenience, punitive and exemplary damages, court costs and any further relief the court might grant.

The case was 1st transferred from Kanawha to Hampshire County. It was later transferred again, from Hampshire to Hardy, because of concerns over being able to find jurors here that hadn’t been exposed to the case.  

At the end of April 2014, DHHR granted Potomac Center a 6-month provisional license that allowed it to bring in 8 residents and reopen 1 of the 3 cottages. Then, just before New Year’s Day 2015, it announced that the facility could return to full occupancy of 24 children.

The 4 individual workers were charged with child abuse or child neglect in the case, including Helms. All 4 eventually pled guilty to 1 or more counts.

The events drew 2 previous civil cases.

One, also filed in Kanawha Circuit, made 2 of the same claims as the just settled suit, that Potomac Center failed to hire, train and supervise the employees and that the center was negligent in allowing the alleged abuses.

That case was settled confidentially in October 2015 with Potomac Center paying an undisclosed amount to 2 plaintiffs who were also clients there during 2013-14.

Another civil suit, filed in Hampshire County for a child identified as R.M., sought class-action status, but Judge Charles Parsons placed the proceedings under seal at the request of the plaintiff in July 2016.

Energy Express gives way to summer school
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Summer school started here Monday, and it’s looking a little different than it has in years past.

Hampshire County has historically used Energy Express as the summer learning platform, an award-winning, 6-week educational and nutritional program, but this year, the county school system is offering a different summer learning academy.

“This summer, Hampshire County does not have an Energy Express program,” said extension agent Kelly Hicks. “This is very unfortunate, but we were unable to hire a site supervisor for the program.”

Hicks described that across the state this summer, counties like Hampshire will be implementing their summer learning programs after receiving government Covid funding.

This summer, there are 2 learning sites for the elementary level in the county: Romney and Augusta. These sites serve all of the elementary kids in the county, and there’s also a site at the high school.

The program kicked off earlier this week on Monday, and Superintendent Jeff Pancione called it a “pretty successful” start.

“We had roughly around 500 or so students (total),” Pancione explained. “Augusta had 100-plus, and Romney had over 200 and HHS had 100 and counting.”

Hicks said that this summer’s program is a combination of traditional, familiar learning programs with some additional, hands-on activities, with help from the WVU Extension Service.

Educating students is obviously a top priority when it comes to summer school programs, but so is feeding them.

“Traditionally, 58 percent of a child’s daily nutritional needs can be met through summer learning programs,” Hicks added. “Kids receive nutritious meals that they might not have received otherwise.”

Hicks also pointed out that summer programming is an integral part of the school system because it helps eliminate the summer learning slide.

“The goal is that kids will return to school in the fall ready to pick up where they left off when school ended in the spring,” she said. “Of course, this is extra challenging now because kids were out of school a lot this past year due to Covid.”

While programming this year strays a little from the Energy Express experience, 2 things are certain: students will continue learning through hands-on activities this summer, and they’ll see nutritious meals thanks to Covid funding from the government.

“It’s important that kids have emotionally and physically safe environments in the summer such as summer school or Energy Express where they can thrive,” Hicks said.

‘Signs in every window’
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Small businesses face hiring hurdles

Several Romney mainstays are currently facing some serious challenges when it comes to bringing on employees, and one notable absence since Covid swept through the Mountain State has been Mountain Top Restaurant. 

When restaurants nationwide shut their doors last spring, Mountain Top was no different, but after a few months, they revealed that the restaurant’s doors would stay closed, and they’ve been closed since.

“We haven’t totally decided when we’re going to open back up,” admitted Mountain Top’s Mark Wolford. “I mean, just hearing from other people in businesses, there’s help wanted signs in every window, nearly.”

And he’s not wrong. When Covid touched ground in the nation last spring, many businesses closed their doors and adjusted their services and hours to accommodate for the “new normal.”

Now that businesses, schools and more are returning to what feels almost like the “old” normal, demand has returned to the level it was before the pandemic.

Demand has gone back up, but the number of people who are looking to work has seemingly remained low, too low for businesses like Mountain Top Restaurant to open back up. 

Wolford said he had around 24 employees on the restaurant’s payroll when Covid shut their doors. 

“We lost some key people,” he recalled. “We were open 7 days a week with 2 shifts (a day). And even before Covid, we struggled with help, so I know moving forward it’ll be difficult.”

Linda Hottle Omps with Omps Grocery in Bloomery said that at the beginning of this year, the business faced some hiring hurdles, but have since recovered.

“The more we advertised that we were hiring, the more applications we got,” Omps described. “It’s crazy how other employers can pay $16 and $17 an hour.” 

Wolford said with businesses having hiring issues, he’s “skeptical” to open his doors back up to the public, and he hasn’t developed a reopening plan yet. However, ideally, that’s somewhere he’d like to be soon.

“I’d like the circumstances to be perfect, obviously,” he added. “Maybe we’ll open on a partial basis with less help, but I just don’t know right now.” 

Adjusting hours is one of the ways businesses are coping with their hiring challenges. Main Street Grill, both the Sunrise and the Slanesville locations, will be taking a day off during the week starting June 27. The Slanesville location will be closed on Mondays, and the Sunrise location will be closed Sundays. 

“We have had the task of addressing a difficult issue,” management at Main Street posted on their Facebook page. “The hours of operation due to limited staff and out of consideration of our faithful staff, we will be starting our new hours of operation.”

A day off during the week keeps working employees from experiencing as much burnout, but for some local businesses, they’ve found their rhythm in bringing people back to the workplace. 

Angie Clower at Romney Diner said that while her staff is only 4 people including her, the diner is fully staffed. 

“I actually had all my girls come back,” Clower added. “We’re the same staff as before Covid, and not hiring right now.” 

While some businesses like Romney Diner have found their footing, the struggle continues for business not just here but throughout the state and nationwide, with “We’re Hiring” signs peppering business’ windows seemingly everywhere you turn. 

Wolford expressed his theory about the apparent shortage in people looking to work: “It’s just too easy to get government help and stay home.”

Omps added that there has been a shift in attitude about working in close contact with others.

“A lot of people don’t want to work with the public,” she mused. “Things have changed a lot in the last year and a half.”