CHARLESTON — Fayette County lawmakers are confident the engineering school at WVU-Tech is staying in Montgomery and $14 million is coming to shore up the beleaguered campus “after a decade of neglect.”

Delegate Dave Perry made the assessment after a large group of parents, students and faculty rallied Tuesday on the Capitol steps.

Tech’s engineering department has been targeted to become an integral part of a Dow Chemical research complex in South Charleston, working in tandem with Marshall University.

But the planned move has triggered a backlash from one end of the Upper Kanawha Valley to the other.

Evidence of that came when opponents took to the Capitol steps, armed with banners, buttons and petitions bearing some 7,000 signatures.

Ever since Gov. Joe Manchin disclosed the idea in his State of the State message, Fayette lawmakers have held intense meetings, some going late at night, to nip the plan in the bud.

Manchin apologized for dropping the bombshell in his Jan. 11 address, acknowledging it was a communications snafu and saying he knows how they can hurt, given the breakdown after the Sago Mine tragedy.

“We heard about it on the State of the State,” Sonya Pettry, a parent in Montgomery, said.

“It was a smack in the face.”

Manchin said his intention, as far as the Dow research center is concerned, would only take in Tech’s engineering school if it enhances Montgomery and students.

“The only move we’re going to make is a positive move,” he said.

“I can assure you we will do nothing that will not improve. Improvement is the name of the game. That’s what we need to do. That’s what Tech needs. That’s what Montgomery needs and that’s what West Virginia needs. We’re going to work with you, and not against you.”

Manchin made no assurances about the engineering department’s fate, but Perry was convinced it wasn’t leaving town.

“The engineering department is going to stay like it is and the $14 million for new programs will be forthcoming,” Perry said before the House floor session.

Perry and Delegates John Pino and Tom Louisos, all three D-Fayette, joined Sens. Randy White, D-Webster, and Shirley Love, D-Fayette, in touting Tech.

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Three busloads of Tech supporters arrived at the Capitol, some holding up signs attacking President Charles Bayless — “IMPEACH BAYLESS, The Trojan Horse.”

A House resolution has been offered to oppose the engineering move, and Pino, a member of the crucial Rules Committee, said he would make sure it gets out.

Pino and Perry said some long, arduous meetings have led to a commitment to maintaining the engineering department in Montgomery.

Among those making that commitment were West Virginia University President David Hardesty, Manchin and the legislative delegation, Perry said.

“We’ve been trying to make sure that the governor was on line when he said he wanted to improve Tech and make Montgomery a vibrant community again,” Pino said.

“That came about as a matter of many meetings that sometimes lasted until the late hours.”

Perry is still planing to offer another bill that would revert Tech to its old status, divorcing it entirely from WVU, but admitted the proposal wasn’t likely to get anywhere in this session.

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Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, a prime supporter of the proposed move, got a chilly reception when he addressed the rally.

One woman kept interjecting, “Montgomery, Fayette County,” when he alluded to the engineering department.

McCabe described the school as “in a crisis,” saying it has been worsening for several years.

The senator voiced support for improving Tech, including new programs such as diesel technology and corrections training, but drew catcalls when he mentioned the engineering department.

“How it fits in this will probably be the most complicated piece of the entire equation,” he said.

“To think the only choice out there is to keep it as it has been is probably not representative of the issues on the table.”

McCabe said Tech needs to enlarge its scope in Montgomery to reclaim the status of the glory years of the 1970s and 1980s.

“It’s not just about Fayette County,” he responded to a heckler providing him with a repeated lesson in geography.

“It’s about Kanawha County. It’s about our region and our children, making Tech the best we can. We can create a better future for our children.”

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Mike Browning, a Tech graduate and now the CEO of Webster County Memorial Hospital, said before the rally he enrolled two daughters at his alma mater in deference to its academic reputation.

“I hate to see that diminished in any way by virtue of moving the engineering program out of WVU-Tech,” he said.

“It would be a disastrous move for the institution for that to occur.”

Fayette County Clerk Kelvin Holiday attended the rally, saying he was there to gather more information.

“We want what’s best for the Tech community,” he said.

Student body president John Segsworth likewise was assured the engineering proposal had been tabled, but said financial needs were critical.

“We’ve been underfunded for several years,” he said.

“Our main goal is to let the Legislature know we want to be funded more than we are and better so we can have a quality institution like we had in the past.”

Another Tech alumnus, former Montgomery Mayor Chuck Smith, agreed some big bucks were needed now, saying Tech had been victimized by “more than a decade of neglect.”

Dorms are unfit, a student center is crumbling, labs are outdated and buildings are falling apart campus-wide, while the faculty is severely underpaid, he said.

“The past 10 years almost starved our chance of surviving,” Smith said, pitching for a proposed $14 million bailout.

“We need help. We need friends in high places. We must win this battle.”

Gail Harlan, chair of a new group known as “Take Back Tech,” echoed Smith’s sentiments on Tech.

“These are coal miners’ children we’re dealing with that can’t afford to go to WVU or pay out-of-state tuition,” she reflected after the brief rally.

Many commute from Raleigh, Clay, Nicholas, Boone and Mingo counties, she said.

“This is where they get their education,” she added.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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