Legislative News

Overview

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The Thrasher Group

McKinley Architects & Engineers

October 29, 2019 - Volume 39 Issue 12

By Jim Wallace

If West Virginia legislators want to give local school officials more flexibility, they will have support from state and local school officials and others. Representatives of the state school board, county school boards and other organizations endorsed increased flexibility when the legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary began studying the statutory and regulatory issues involved in increasing flexibility at the local school level.

State school board member Scott Rotruck said the State Board wants to explore what the board and the legislature can do together. The board wants to maximize local flexibility while maintaining all constitutional mandates, complying with federal law and maintaining accountability, he said.

The board already has reduced the number of state regulations by more than 20 percent, Rotruck said, and board members want to talk with local school district officials about further increasing their flexibility.

“I believe we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift.” – Scott Rotruck

“I believe we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift,” Rotruck said. Not only has the state school board been embracing flexibility, he said, but the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, also calls for much flexibility. He promised the state board will remain “hyper-focused” on improving and optimizing its policies and would like to have more conversations like those with the focus groups that studied education reform earlier this year. Since he spoke, the state board has initiated a listening tour at six locations around West Virginia. The first two were held October 7 at Mingo Central High School in Delbarton and October 9 at Monongalia Technical Education Center in Morgantown. Other stops included October 23 at Greenbrier West High School in Charmco, October 24 at James Rumsey Technical Institute in Martinsburg, Remaining listening tours are set for October 29 at Putnam Career and Technical Center in Eleanor and October 30 at John Marshall High School in Glen Dale.

“The school board is dedicated to working as cooperatively as we possibly can with all of our fellow stakeholders,” Rotruck said.

WVSBA endorses more flexibility.

Howard O’Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Board Association, said the West Virginia Constitution recognizes education as a state responsibility, although, through actions of the Legislature, considerable authority for public school policies and operations has been delegated to county school boards. The uniformity in West Virginia’s public education system creates some comfort, he said, but one way to make a difference in the system is to rethink where it is and realize some variance among counties is necessary.

Although county school board members complain that state rules and regulations are compliance-driven, managerial and lacking in local flexibility, O’Cull said, “Good superintendents are able to move their boards so that there is a degree of flexibility.”

The issue is whether the state board and legislature should set out broad parameters rather than specific requirements, he said. “That steers the ship,” he said. “That is really the way to go.”

In addition, O’Cull said, education issues today are so complex they require quick thinking and adaptability. “I think it’s desperately time we have to rethink the role of higher education to determine how superintendents become superintendents,” he said. The superintendent is the chief executive officer of a school district and must lead the school board, he said.

However, O’Cull said, public support for public education is waning. “It’s waning because people don’t really understand the system,” he said. That’s why some people turn to home-schooling, he said.

O’Cull cited a recent article that found that statewide school improvement strategies tend to ignore the potential of local school boards.

“We can make a system that works. We can put a different emphasis, a different process.” – Howard O’Cull

“We can make a system that works,” he said. “We can put a different emphasis, a different process.”

O’Cull concluded that policymakers would make a difference by shifting accountability to the local level.

Mary Jo Thomas, who is president of the Marion County school board and chairwoman of the WVSBA’s Legislative Committee, said 90 county school board members and several superintendents are working in three groups to find ways to inform members about how the recently passed House Bill 206 makes changes in education law regarding innovation, local school improvement councils, open enrollment, school finance and charter schools.

“We are committed to advancing public education and continuing to pursue educational excellence in West Virginia,” Thomas said, adding that the WVSBA wants to work with legislators and the state school board.

Mickey Blackwell executive director of the West Virginia Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals, told legislators that his group embraces flexibility. He urged them not to add regulations that could harm student achievement. He also called for putting more health care professionals in schools.

Kids are still the same as they were in the past, Blackwell said, “But families aren’t the same, and we know that. And our drug issues are not the same.”

Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, urged legislators to address issues associated with having more than 10,000 homeless students in the state and to help reduce class sizes.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, suggested legislators should listen to the teachers before they make changes in education policy.

Court decisions led to the education system West Virginia has.

The committee also heard from Heather Hutchens, general counsel for the West Virginia Department of Education, to find out how West Virginia got the highly centralized public education system it has and why the state school board has more autonomy from the legislature than most other state boards do.

Back in 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that state board policies do not need to go through the legislative rule-making process because of constitutional separation of powers, she said.

In a case brought by the Kanawha County school system in 1990 against the state board over the board’s rejection of a plan to close South Charleston Junior High, the Supreme Court clarified that the state board had the authority to do that, Hutchens said. Then, in 2017, the Nicholas County school board sued the state board over the proposed closing of Richwood High School, she said, and the Supreme Court again ruled the state board has independent authority to determine whether the county’s plan was in the best interest of students.

However, Hutchens said, in a case in which the state board sued the state auditor and treasurer to compel them to implement a salary increase for the state superintendent, the court ruled the board could not do that and that power rested in the legislature to pass statutes to determine how officials are paid.

One of the biggest court decisions affecting the public school system was the Recht decision, named for Judge Arthur Recht. It came from a case called Pauley versus Kelly filed by parents in Lincoln County in 1975 in which many officials were defendants. Back then, the state did not have as much centralized regulation of education, and there were relatively few policies from the state board and little oversight from the legislature, Hutchens said.

“Those kids in Lincoln County were suffering compared to other students in the state.” – Heather Hutchens

“And the picture wasn’t pretty,” she said. “Those kids in Lincoln County were suffering compared to other students in the state.”

After the case went on for years, Hutchens said, “The court said the state board was derelict in its duty to provide high-quality academic standards, meaningful assessments, meaningful accountability for all school districts, and methods to ensure that there were avenues for improvement for failing schools.”

Adding that those issues still exist, she said the court found that the legislature had not done enough to fulfill its responsibility to fund public education.

“That’s why we have the school funding formula that we have now,” Hutchens said. “Certainly, there are ways that that is altered to make it more equitable and more meaningful every year, but the basis was that we can’t just leave it all to the counties.”

By Jim Wallace

A high Department of Education official has told legislators the department is trying to figure out what services are needed to reduce student absenteeism as well as how to keep students engaged better.

Michele Blatt, assistant superintendent in the Division of Support and Accountability, addressed the issue with members of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability after results of the Balanced Scorecard assessment of West Virginia schools revealed that 38 percent of schools failed to meet the state standards for attendance in the last school year because at least 20 percent of their students were chronically absent. Being chronically absent is defined as missing at least 10 percent of the school year, which is roughly two days a month. The Balanced Scorecard said 16 percent of elementary students were chronically absent, as were 20 percent of middle school students and 24 percent of high school students.

Blatt said the federal government considers chronic absenteeism as either excused or unexcused. “They’re looking at it as, if they are not there, they’re not learning,” she said. The department hopes funding from this year’s omnibus education bill, House Bill 206, will help address the problem, she said.

“We have a great start on the solution with the $30.5 million that you put in for the student support services,” Blatt said. “Those are the things we are encouraging our counties to look at the individual school levels for what do they need. If there is an issue – if it’s attendance – we need the social worker or the counselor or somebody that that’s their job to make those home visits or set up those meetings with parents.”

Hiring additional staff is just a beginning to fixing the absenteeism issue, she said.

“I hope to be able to stand in front of you next year and say that’s made an impact on our attendance across the state.” – Michele Blatt

“I hope to be able to stand in front of you next year and say that’s made an impact on our attendance across the state,” Blatt said.

Although the attendance issue has received the most attention since the Balanced Scorecard results came out in mid-September, other results look more hopeful, she said. For example, 39 districts improved their scorecard points on English language arts performance and 35 districts improved on math performance. Among the districts, 25 improved on five or more indicators, which Blatt said shows they are focusing on all areas, as had been hoped.

“We did have some success, however, with our lowest-performing schools,” she said, referring to schools in the bottom 5 percent of achievement. Among them, 77 percent increased their overall points in English language arts and 83 percent of them increased in math, while 43 percent of them improved in overall attendance, Blatt said. The department now is seeing what supports helped them, so that information can be shared with other schools, she said.

“Our goal is to find out across the state what’s working and then create a mechanism where we can share that with the schools that are still struggling.” – Michele Blatt

Among the schools with the highest poverty levels, 15 exceeded progress in English language arts and 14 did so in math, Blatt said. “They have some of the most needy kids in the state, so what did they do to cause these increases from one year to the next?” she asked. “Our goal is to find out across the state what’s working and then create a mechanism where we can share that with the schools that are still struggling.”

Department is working on fulfilling requirements of education reform bill.

In regard to implementing the provisions of House Bill 206, Clayton Burch, associate superintendent, said the Education Department has prepared guidance documents to help school districts. He said department officials go through them at every meeting of school people. The department also is putting together an entire toolkit for every district on how to address the trauma children face from preschool through high school, he said. School superintendents were active all summer in preparing to implement the provisions of House Bill 206, he said.

Carla Warren, special assistant to Supt. Steve Paine, said the listening tour state school board has scheduled at six locations around the state during October are intended to address several topics: flexibility on curriculum, credits and standards; teacher preparation, recruitment and retention; family engagement and local school improvement councils; and career readiness. She said a written report will be prepared by December first.

By Jim Wallace

House Bill 206, this year’s omnibus education bill, has made many changes in the funding the state sends to county school districts. Amy Willard, director of the Education Department’s Office of School Finance, explained them to members of the Joint Standing Committee on Finance.

First, she said, the definition of professional student support personnel changed. Previously, it was limited to counselors and nurses, she said, but it has been expanded to include any professional personnel providing direct social and emotional student support services and professional personnel addressing chronic absenteeism. That would include social workers, attendance officers and individuals in the Communities in Schools program. Willard said the change does not have a cost to the state but simply provides additional flexibility to county school boards.

Another change is for districts with fewer than 1,400 students in net enrollment. The new law increases their basic foundation allowance by 10 percent up to a cap of 1,400 students, which Willard said affects 10 county school boards: Calhoun, Doddridge, Gilmer, Pendleton, Pleasants, Ritchie, Tucker, Tyler, Webster and Wirt counties. Its estimated cost is $5.3 million, she said.

The local share calculation also changed. Previously, it was 90 percent of each county’s regular tax dollars, Willard said, but that has changed to 85 percent. She said it allows county boards to retain the additional 5 percent for discretionary use at an estimated cost of $17.8 million.

Another change is in Step 5 funding for professional student support personnel. It previously had been fixed at the 2012-2013 level, Willard said, but House Bill 206 changed it to fund all county school boards at a ratio of five positions per 1,000 students net enrollment. That has an estimated cost to the state of $29.5 million, she said.

The bill increased Step 6A funding for current operations by 1 percent. It previously used a formula of 70.25 percent, Willard said, and it’s now 71.25 percent. The estimated cost is $1.7 million, she said.

House Bill 206 also increased the faculty senate allotment. Each professional student support person and professional instruction person gets another $200, Willard said. That increase has been added to the allotment for each classroom teacher and librarian, which boosts their discretionary amount from $100 to $300 at a cost of $3.9 million, she said.

A big change is the provision that has almost all state aid funds being sent to school districts in the form of block grants free of limitations. Willard said limitations are gone from bus replacement and additional bus funding, the improvement of instructional programs, improvement of instructional technology, advanced placement dual-credit courses, teacher and leader induction programs, comprehensive systems of support for new teachers, and student transportation for academic trips. However, she said, other restrictions on funding are still in place for faculty senates, professional staff development councils, and service staff development councils because they fall under a different section of state code.

The bill provides for an average 5 percent pay increase for teachers and service personnel. For teachers, the average is $2,120 a year, Willard said, while for service personnel, the average is $115 a month, which equates to $1,150 a year. The total estimated cost of the salary increases is $67.7 million, she said, but if the retirement portion is excluded, the estimated cost is $62.7 million.

In addition, the bill provides a supplement for certified math teachers who teach math more than 60 percent of the time by giving them three additional years of experience on the salary tables. Willard said the cost is $2.3 million to the state. She said a similar three-step increase for special education teachers is estimated to cost $5.5 million.

A new attendance incentive bonus provides an extra $500 for teachers who use no more than four personal days per year, which Willard said is estimated to cost the state $2.1 million.

The total estimated increase in costs from House Bill 206 is $134.1 million, she said.

By Jim Wallace

The West Virginia Legislature made big changes this year in how the state funds public schools, but even bigger changes are possible if the state would change to the type of school funding system that many other states have adopted. Members of the Joint Standing Commission on Education learned from a national expert about what such a change would mean.

“A quality school funding formula is designed first off to meet student needs.” – Mike Griffith

“A quality school funding formula is designed first off to meet student needs,” Mike Griffith, school finance consultant for the Education Commission of the States, said. “So that’s all your students – your general ed. students but also your students who are at risk or low-income students, your special education students, your English language learners and what other groups of students that exist in your state that might not be able to achieve at the same level as your general ed. kids.”

Griffith also gave these other qualities of a good funding formula:

  • It meets district needs. Smaller districts have higher costs. Research shows when you get below about 2,500 students, the cost per student goes up. It goes up more for districts with fewer than 1,500 students. Very small districts with 500 or fewer students have much higher costs. Small districts also have difficulty recruiting and retaining staff because of their rural locations. Very large districts have different issues. Districts with extremely high poverty levels need additional assistance.
  • It is flexible to allow districts to make the decisions they need to make. Funding should be predictable, so districts can plan ahead.
  • It should be relatively easy to understand. However, Griffith added, “No formula is completely easy to understand.”

West Virginia traditionally has had one of the highest percentages of funding coming from state sources rather than local sources, he said. “In general, states that have a higher percentage of funding coming from state sources had better equalization of funding,” Griffith said. “That’s because the state resources get spread out to districts all throughout the state. Local funding tends to benefit those places that have greater local wealth.”

Pennsylvania generally has among the highest percentages of local funding and some of the greatest inequity from poor districts to wealthy districts, he said. Illinois has the highest percentage of local funding, he said, and the wealthiest districts have five times as much funding as the poorest districts.

However, Griffith said, in the beginning, states did not supply funding for school districts; the school districts raised their own funds. After the country progressed about 50 years, states started allocating certain amounts per student, he said. In the 1920s and 1930s, many people recognized that wasn’t fair because some places were wealthier than others, so states started equalizing funding then, he said. After World War II, states recognized that districts had different needs, not just different wealth, he said, and they started changing their formulas to account for different student needs. That resulted in a split in the types of school funding formulas, he said. Lately, a new trend, which hasn’t taken off yet, is to make sure that funding follows each student, he said.

The majority of states and territories use a foundation formula, Griffith said. Exceptions include Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, each of which operates with one school system each, so they have their own formulas.

“Every state I go into thinks that they have the most difficult funding formula in the country – the hardest to understand, the hardest to replicate,” he said. “The actual winner of that is Wisconsin.”

Wisconsin has three different types of funding formulas, each one more confusing, Griffith said. Michigan has a unique system in which all money is controlled by the state, he said, so local property tax revenues are sent to the state, which then divides the money among districts. In Vermont, local voters decide in town hall meetings each year how much to spend on their kids, and the state guarantees the money will be made available, he said. Massachusetts has a unique funding system that is designed to work with the state’s accountability system, he said and added, “It’s a pretty complicated formula and has a lot of moving parts to it, but it has worked well for them.”

“What’s proven to change student learning is to provide districts with the flexibility and freedom to spend it how they want but hold them to high standards.” – Mike Griffith

Griffith said the single most important feature of a funding formula is flexibility. “What’s proven to change student learning is to provide districts with the flexibility and freedom to spend it how they want but hold them to high standards,” he said. “Be concerned not about how the money is spent but the student outcomes that you get. In the end, that should be the goal of all funding formulas.”

California overhauled its funding formula, and a study found that providing districts with freedom on how they spend money is just as important as or more important than additional dollars, he said.

West Virginia has a position allocation system, which considers how many teachers and other workers need to be funded and then accounts for other costs, Griffith said. This type of system was adopted in states that were forced to spend additional money on education, such as by court rulings (as West Virginia was), he said. Those states decided that, if they were going to spend more money, they wanted to know where the money was going, he said. Mainly southern states adopted this type of system, he said.

“At the time, that type of system made a lot of sense, and it worked fine,” Griffith said. However, it works only if every student is attending the neighborhood school, he said, because once they get into alternative forms of education, it doesn’t work as well. That’s because the formula generates teaching positions, not dollars, he said. Under such a formula, it is harder for students to take dual-credit courses from local colleges and universities, he said.

More and more states have moved away from the position allocation formula to the foundation formula, Griffith said, and it now is used in 33 states. It starts with a dollar amount that is enough for a general education student to meet state standards, he said, and then it gives extra for low-income students, special education students and English language learners. Then it is adjusted based on school needs, such as higher operating costs or low enrollment, he said.

“It’s a relatively simple and streamlined system,” Griffith said. “Anytime you want to make a change, you can easily make a change to this type of system.”

Under West Virginia’s current system, the only way to make a change is to add another line-item, he said. As more changes are made, more line-items are needed and the formula gets more complicated, he said.

The biggest pushback to changing to a foundation formula comes from district superintendents who are accustomed to working with the current system, Griffith said.

“Even though these types of systems like you have mandate the number of teachers and what they get paid, when you move away from that, you actually see teacher salaries go up,” he said. “States that have foundation formulas actually pay their teachers at higher rates than states that have your type of formula.”

Griffith said that’s because the type of formula used in West Virginia locks in not only teachers’ salaries but also textbooks, technology and everything else.

Although West Virginia has changed its formula to provide most funding to districts in the form of block grants, he said, districts will continue to spend money the way they always have done it. If you provide funding based on 60 percent going to teachers’ salaries, districts will continue to spend 60 percent of their funds on teachers’ salaries, he said.

When a state moves to a foundation formula, giving districts more flexibility, most districts choose to put money into teachers’ salaries because they realize it is the most important line-item, Griffith said. It can be difficult to change to the foundation formula, he warned, adding that he worked with Idaho for about 15 months on such a change, but the school districts weren’t willing to accept it.

“States that have foundation formulas actually pay their teachers at higher rates than states that have your type of formula.” – Mike Griffith

If West Virginia would make the change, the state should hold all districts harmless for loss of funds for at least a couple of years, Griffith said, suggesting it could be phased in over three to five years. He said people in the districts would need to talk about the change.

With the change West Virginia already has made to block grant funding, the state should consider setting money aside to help districts understand the greater flexibility they have, Griffith said. That money could be used to provide a state official to work with districts for that purpose.

Griffith said these are considered the best ways, from a national perspective, to make changes with additional dollars:

  • Establish early learning programs, which West Virginia already has;
  • Establish programs for English language learners, but West Virginia has the lowest percentage in the country with only about 2,500 of them, so such a program would not have much of an effect in the state;
  • Establish programs for low-income, at-risk students, of which West Virginia has one of the highest percentages in the country; and
  • Focus on teacher recruitment and retention, a movement that West Virginia helped trigger with the teachers’ strike in 2018.

By Jim Wallace

West Virginia once had a problem with some counties not collecting enough property tax revenue, which mostly supports public schools. But a report from a Tax Department official to the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability indicates those days are gone thanks to legislation passed several years ago.

Jeff Amburgey, director of the Property Tax Division, explained that properties are supposed to be assessed at 60 percent of market value, but there is 10 percent leeway, so it could be as low as 54 percent and as high as 66 percent. As recently as 2012, six of West Virginia’s 55 counties were out of compliance in their assessments. In 2013, three were out of compliance, and in 2014, four were out of compliance.

The legislature’s initial attempt to address the problem several years ago was to pass a law that would have cut school funding in counties where assessors were out of compliance, but some people complained the schools should not be punished based on the actions of assessors. In 2014, a new law removed that penalty on school funding but allowed for the appointment of a special assessor to take over the duties of any assessor who remained out of compliance.

Since then, Amburgey said, only one county was out of compliance in 2015 and no county has been out of compliance since then.

Editor’s Note – Jim Wallace is a former government reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail, former news director of West Virginia Public Radio and former news director of WWVA/WOVK radio in Wheeling. He now works for TSG Consulting, a public relations and governmental affairs company with offices in Charleston and Beckley. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The Ohio State University and a master’s degree in journalism from West Virginia University. Wallace is the author of the 2012 book,A History of the West Virginia Capitol: The House of State.