By Jake Zuckerman and Ryan Quinn Staff writers
A state office under the Department of Education and the Arts in Oak Hill that helps about 350 West Virginians with special needs find and hold employment appears set to close this summer — though one spokesperson said Friday the decision is no longer final.
In a March 9 email provided to the Gazette-Mail, Jeanette Ratcliffe, district manager for the Division of Rehabilitation Services, told employees that the Oak Hill branch office would close.
“As you guys now know, it has been recommended to close the Oak Hill Office and combine it with Beckley/Summersville,” she wrote. “The only timeframe I can give you is 2-6 months. I have consulted with Senior Management and we have evaluated several different scenarios for staff and it has been decided that the best option for the Agency, for a variety of reasons, is to combine with the Summersville Office.”
Workers at the office have been instructed not to talk to media and have referred media inquiries to Tracy Carr, a DRS spokeswoman, and Marijane Waldron, the division director, both of whom have not responded to repeated phone calls this week.
Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, whose district encompasses Oak Hill, said he only found out about the closure through community organizations that partner with the DRS office. He said in a subsequent conversation with Waldron, she agreed to a meeting about the closure but was adamant that the meeting not be open to the public.
Gordon Simmons, of public employees union UE Local 170, said the closure had been set for May 31.
However, Kristin Anderson, spokeswoman for Acting Secretary of Education and the Arts and Deputy State Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch, said that while there had been a final decision to close the branch, she heard Friday from Burch that it was no longer final. She said she didn’t know when the initial closure decision was made or what date that decision no longer became final.
While Carr did not respond to interview requests, she confirmed the closure in an email and referred further inquiries to the office of Gov. Jim Justice.
“We are still working on timelines and there is no definite date set for closure at this time,” she said. “The closure was approved by Cabinet Secretary Gayle Manchin before her departure. No DRS employees will lose their job because of this office closure. Client services will not be affected or interrupted due to the office closure; DRS staff will continue to meet with clients in the Oak Hill community.”
The next closest DRS locations are in Beckley and Summersville.
Manchin, whom Justice fired March 12 from the secretary of education and the arts position, said she did not make any final decision on the Oak Hill closure, leaving it to Waldron.
“I cannot tell you why that decision or what the thought process – you need to talk to Marijane Waldron,” she said.
While Manchin said under normal circumstances, she would have been more involved with the decision, she said all her attention was on House Bill 4006, which passed and dissolved her department despite her opposition. The law will move DRS to its new home in the Department of Commerce.
“After the legislative session started, we did not have those kinds of routine, carrying-on-business [meetings] like we had before,” she said. “I’m not saying that as an excuse, I’m saying my concerns were in a different arena.”
After Justice signed HB 4006, he said in a news release, “We’ve checked and double checked, and there will be no lapses in federal funding and no harm caused to any of these programs.”