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Heavy rain, more flooding possible in West Virginia

HUNTINGTON — Forecasters are warning that short bursts of heavy rain starting Wednesday evening could cause already high creeks and streams to overflow and lead to additional flooding in West Virginia.

On Thursday morning, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Huntington District activated its Emergency Operations Center to proactively monitor the needs of local communities.

At many levees and floodwalls, including Point Pleasant in West Virginia, and Ironton, Portsmouth and New Boston in Ohio and Maysville, Kentucky, inspection teams from the Huntington District will provide monitoring assistance, according to a news release.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for most of the state starting at 4 p.m. Wednesday through Thursday morning. All schools in McDowell County were closed Wednesday and other counties moved to end classes early, according to education officials.

In the Ohio River Valley, the National Weather Service said rivers, creeks and streams were expected to rise as nearly 2 inches of rain fell on the region Wednesday night into Thursday.

Locally, the watch was issued for Boyd County in Kentucky, Lawrence County in Ohio, and Cabell, Wayne, Lincoln, Mason, Putnam and Kanawha counties in West Virginia.

“Much of the rainfall tonight may come in a relatively short period of time, bringing a threat of rapid rises on small creeks and streams,” the National Weather Service said Wednesday. “Area creeks and streams will continue to run high from recent rainfall. Flooding will continue to be a possibility, particularly in low-lying or flood-prone areas.”

In Wayne County, the National Weather Service also issued a flood warning lasting until 4 p.m. Thursday, urging people to be aware of rising water.

“Turn around, don’t drown when encountering flooded roads,” according to the warning. “Most flood deaths occur in vehicles.”

By Wednesday evening, Wayne County 911 dispatchers said they had not received reports of any weather-related emergencies.

In Cabell County, 911 dispatchers said they were aware of reported high water in parts of the county, but there had not been any reported emergencies.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice issued a state of preparedness Wednesday, which he said allows resources to be mobilized in the event of flooding or other storm-related problems. Earlier this week, he told emergency officials to be ready for more flooding, saying they are monitoring water levels and will be on standby if local governments need assistance.

Justice last week declared a state of emergency in seven counties and mobilized the state’s National Guard as a storm system moved through the region. Multiple school systems closed early as hard rains caused downed trees, rock slides and flooded streets.

Communities urged to give back during National Salute to Veteran Patients week

HUNTINGTON — Hospitalized veterans at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers, clinics and facilities nationwide are being honored this week as part of the National Salute to Veteran Patients.

This annual observation gives all Americans the chance to thank the more than 9 million veterans who receive care from VA, whether by volunteering their time, offering a Valentine, special treat or entertainment. Hershel “Woody” Williams VAMC is welcoming special visitors each day, including a stop Wednesday by the Creative Quilters, who donate quilts to veterans.

Members of the quilting guild gathered to choose material and sew squares Wednesday afternoon, creating works of art to donate to the medical center for patients.

Other visits this week were expected to be made by groups including sports teams, Marine Corps League detachments, musicians, local businesses and nonprofits.

W.Va. governor denies racism over 'thugs' basketball comment

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday said it’s absurd to accuse him of racism for calling a high school girls basketball team “thugs” after a scuffle broke out at a game.

Justice’s defense comes a day after a game involving Greenbrier East High School, where he coaches, was forced to end early when the opposing team’s coach got into a tiff with someone in the stands.

“I hate to say it any other way, but honest to God’s truth is the same thing happened over at Woodrow two different times out of the Woodrow players,” a heated Justice told a reporter from The Register-Herald after the game, referencing the opposing team’s name. “They’re a bunch of thugs. The whole team left the bench; the coach is in a fight; they walked off the floor; they called the game!

“They don’t know how to behave and at the end of the day, you got what you got,” he said.

The team’s coaches are black, as are some of the players.

By morning, Justice’s comments were making the rounds on social media, with one Democratic state lawmaker, Del. Mike Pushkin, tweeting that the governor was making “thinly veiled racial slurs.”

Justice, a Republican, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon defending his use of the word “thugs.”

“My definition of a thug is clear — it means violence, bullying and disorderly conduct. And we, as West Virginians, should have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior. Anyone that would accuse me of making a racial slur is totally absurd,” he said.

He added that one of the opposing team’s coaches has been cited by the West Virginia State Police for obstructing an officer.

A police spokeswoman confirmed the citation in an email.

“I’m extremely proud that my coaches, my team and myself were not involved in this incident in any way, shape, form or fashion, and I’m truly saddened that the Woodrow kids had to be subjected to this behavior,” Justice said.

W.Va. BOE approves charter school rules

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Board of Education members opened the door Wednesday for applications to create the first charter schools in the state.

The board approved regulations for the schools. State legislators allowed charter schools through last year’s controversial omnibus education law (HB 206).

That law required the state school board to implement regulations. The board on Wednesday opted against using its state constitutional independence to challenge lawmakers’ order to legalize the schools.

Now county boards of education, which don’t have that constitutional power, will be forced to implement their own charter policies, though the state policy includes draft language they can use.

Debra Sullivan, the former principal at Charleston Catholic High School who previously served in the public school system, was the only state school board member to vote no on the charter school rules.

Sullivan read a written statement that said “the policy reflects the most current national research on charter schools,” but “my concerns are less with the policy than with the idea of charter schools.”

She echoed concerns heard during last year’s opposition to the omnibus.

Sullivan questioned whether money diverted to charters will cause current public schools to increase class sizes, cut extracurriculars or maintenance or even shut down, and she added that county school systems will have a hard time managing the detailed charter application process and then overseeing charters.

If county boards of education don’t meet certain steps by certain dates, charter schools are automatically approved to open.

“I am not convinced that the way to strengthen our public schools is by diverting public funds to support a parallel set of schools or educational options,” she said.

Elsewhere across the country, charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, including by nonprofit groups and for-profit companies.

What West Virginia’s charter regulations actually entail was unclear Wednesday.

The department published an initial proposal for public comment in November. The agency didn’t publish the final proposal — the one incorporating changes from comments and the one the board approved — until 8:15 a.m. Wednesday, shortly before the board meeting, according to the board’s secretary.

There were 510 comments from about 125 people, the department said.

“Those commenters identified as parents, teachers, support personnel, administrators, higher education faculty and others,” said Sarah Stewart, the department’s government affairs counsel. She said many comments resulted in changes.

She said a majority of the policy emanates directly from the omnibus. On one part where the law was silent, Stewart said the policy bans charters from providing more than half their instruction online.

Sullivan said many comments related to what requirements people would have to have to work in charter schools. The policy doesn’t specify what is required to teach, and Sullivan asked whether even a college degree would be mandated.

Oliver Ho, a department coordinator who helped with the policy, said it’s “incumbent on the authorizer, the county board of education, to make sure that those plans that the charter school has for staffing its school appropriately to provide instruction — that meets these exceptional accountability measures that are going to be in place — is there.”

County school boards get to approve or deny charter applications and set extra accountability measures, but the process the omnibus set forth was complex and didn’t allow for easy rejections.

Social studies

State school board members, in a voice vote with no nays heard, also abandoned proposed reductions in high school social studies standards. The changes faced a deluge of criticism from state residents and lawmakers after the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported on the proposed reductions.

Among the abandoned social studies proposals: cutting social studies credits required to graduate from four to three; teaching U.S. history in one course instead of two; allowing students to more easily avoid World Studies, from prehistory to the 1800s; and allowing counties to no longer offer economics, geography or U.S. or contemporary studies.

State Superintendent Steve Paine announced last month he would no longer recommend those changes. He cited an “overwhelming response” from the public and educators for his decision. Paine is scheduled to leave his post by June 30. He did not attend Wednesday’s meeting.

The board also approved changes to Policy 2510, a central curriculum policy that includes social studies requirements. Board members removed the previously proposed social studies changes while approving changes in other areas.