Essential reporting in volatile times.

Click here to stay informed and subscribe to the Coal Valley News.

Click #isupportlocal for more information on supporting our local journalists.

CHARLESTON — Over the past two school years, nearly half of Lincoln County’s public school buses were towed at least once, according to a West Virginia Department of Education investigation.

“The Team was able to verify five of the 50 tows during the onsite visit,” the investigative report says. “The maintenance records provided to the Team were incomplete and contained limited information about preventative maintenance checks, oil and filter changes, and in some instances tire replacement.”

In some cases, the Lincoln school system violated state Board of Education policy by not doing maintenance inspections of buses at least every 40 days, the report says.

Also, the report says, “There was no formal record-keeping process in place to track incoming (bus) parts” or which buses received new parts. And Lincoln’s transportation director told staff to create some documents to provide department investigators after the original documents couldn’t be found, the report said.

This report, released Thursday, was the second the state education department has released raising concerns about the safety of children in Lincoln County, which has about 3,100 public school students.

The first report centered on Guyan Valley Middle, where former state school board President Dave Perry said a student had killed herself. Perry said that incident generated complaints to the education department, which the state board oversees, and those complaints contributed to starting the investigation.

The principal at the time, Johnnalynn Davis, allegedly barred students from receiving services from the school counselor and social worker, and allegedly sometimes disciplined students for what they talked to the social worker about, according to that initial report.

In March, after state board members received that first report, they ordered the department to review the entire Lincoln school system, ahead of a possible state takeover.

That led to the report on countywide transportation and finance that the state board received Thursday.

After spending about 2½ hours behind closed doors in an “executive session,” board members didn’t discuss the new report.

Instead, they immediately voted, without anyone dissenting, to declare an “emergency” in the county; give the Lincoln Board of Education six months to show progress or face takeover; and order the state schools superintendent appoint designees to help Lincoln.

But board Vice President Tom Campbell, in making that successful motion, said it was “in support of Superintendent (Jeff) Kelley’s efforts, which are ongoing, and we’re pleased with the progress.” Kelley only started July 1, and the report focuses on issues that occurred or began before that.

Campbell said he would be surprised if that progress halted.

Kelley declined to answer any questions on the report until he speaks with Lincoln school board members Tuesday. He and the board president said they just received the report.

For the latest report, the department’s Office of Support and Accountability reviewed documents dating back to July 1, 2018, and sometimes before, and going through April 30 of this year, according to the report. Department employees also conducted interviews of Lincoln staff.

Alongside the school bus concerns, the report lists numerous financial violations, including purchases that Lincoln was required to seek bids from companies for, yet the school system had no documentation showing that was done. Bidding processes are supposed to ensure governments get quality goods and services at the cheapest possible price.

The chief school business officer at the time no longer works for Lincoln. None of the employees implicated were named in the report.

“County employees demonstrated a lack of basic understanding of the competitive bidding and local board approval procedures,” the report says.

The report says Lincoln’s “finance office employees had not been provided a copy of” two state school board policies regarding purchasing and accounting regulations, “nor were they made aware that these policies were available on the (department) website.”

The department noted multiple violations regarding overtime, supplemental and stipend pay. In one instance, someone was paid nearly $42,000 in a single school year, mostly for mowing, without a contract. That job wasn’t posted for applicants.

And “after the schools were closed for COVID-19, this employee was paid for eight hours a day for work not actually performed and was then paid extra pay for the work he truly performed.”

The report also says the maintenance director is receiving “supplemental pay” for wiring, and Lincoln couldn’t provide a contract reflecting that.

“The maintenance director was paid an hourly rate for wiring from $38.87 to $40.56 per hour based on his regular hourly rate for director duties,” the report says. “All other wiring specialists (reviewed) were paid $25 per hour for the same services.”

The department raised ethics concerns regarding this pay because the maintenance director’s job includes determining “when and how a school or other county facility needs new or updated wiring.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.