News

Overview

Inside

The Thrasher Group

March 11, 2011 - Volume 31 Issue 17

News

“Journalism is literature in a hurry.” – Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), British poet and cultural critic.

By Jim Wallace

The latest proposal to address West Virginia’s huge liability for OPEB – other post-employment benefits – emerged from the House Finance Committee Thursday.

The House made significant changes in Senate Bill 616, the OPEB bill approved by the Senate, but fortunately for county school boards, it still calls for relieving them of the responsibility for carrying much of the OPEB liability on their books. Under a law the Legislature passed several years ago, school boards have had to put what was considered their share of the liability on their financial records. The total liability assigned to the 55 county boards has been as much as 45 percent of the state’s estimated total liability of about $8 billion.

Most of that liability represents health care benefits promised to current and future retirees from public sector jobs. The retirees essentially have had most of the cost of their health care insurance premiums subsidized, but lawmakers and others have concluded the state cannot afford to continue such subsidies at their current rates.

Unlike the Senate version of the bill, the House version includes a funding source for paying down the OPEB liability. It would initially take money from one of the state’s two Rainy Day Funds, but that money would be paid back and the funding source would switch in a few years to the revenue now being used to pay down the state’s lingering liability for its old workers’ compensation fund.

The initial plan that developed in the Senate would have used $50 million a year from a $1.00 a pack increase in cigarette taxes to pay down the liability. But the Senate Finance Committee twice rejected that proposal by a one-vote margin, so when Senate Bill 616 emerged, it put off finding a funding source until July 2012.

“It really addresses the needs of children and public education by doing that, by recognizing that it’s a state obligation not a county [obligation]. It frees up dollars in all of our counties, many of whom would have been in deficit with this and now have the money to put back into the kids.” – WVEA President Dale Lee

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee is pleased the House version of the bill both relieves the county school boards of the liability and includes a funding source.

“It really addresses the needs of children and public education by doing that, by recognizing that it’s a state obligation not a county [obligation],” he said. “It frees up dollars in all of our counties, many of whom would have been in deficit with this and now have the money to put back into the kids.”

The bill also calls for cost containment measures that should save the Public Employees Insurance Agency some money. Lee said those measures might be “painful,” but they’re necessary.

“The best thing with the funding source is it eliminates the liability in the year 2028,” he said. “Under the Senate version, even when it had a funding source, the tobacco tax, it only reduced the liability 75 percent by the year 2030. This eliminates the liability.”

 

Governor might not go along.

“Our Rainy Day Fund is one of the best in the country. While other states have completely drained their rainy day funds, we have never had to dip into our Rainy Day Fund with the exception of natural disasters, whether it be floods, blizzards or whatever. One of the reasons that Wall Street continues to upgrade our credit rating, our bond rating, is the fact that our Rainy Day Fund is solvent.” – Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin

But even if the Senate accepts the House’s method for paying down the OPEB liability, acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin might not. He said on the MetroNews Radio Network’s “Talkline” program Thursday that he opposes using the Rainy Day fund for OPEB.

“Our Rainy Day Fund is one of the best in the country,” Tomblin said. “While other states have completely drained their rainy day funds, we have never had to dip into our Rainy Day Fund with the exception of natural disasters, whether it be floods, blizzards or whatever. One of the reasons that Wall Street continues to upgrade our credit rating, our bond rating, is the fact that our Rainy Day Fund is solvent.”

Tomblin is afraid that if West Virginia starts using the Rainy Day Fund for other purposes, Wall Street could start downgrading the state’s bond ratings, which would mean the state, and its taxpayers, would have to pay more to borrow money.

“I’m saying let’s leave the Rainy Day Fund alone right now,” he said.

 

By Jim Wallace

A bill to modify state law dealing with school-related harassment, intimidation and bullying had a smoother journey through the Senate than it did in the House of Delegates and seems to be on the verge of getting through the Legislature. The Senate approved House Bill 3225 Thursday evening on a 32-0 vote with minor changes from the House version, but House approval for the changes is expected.

The bill would expand the definition of harassment, intimidation or bullying to include cyber-bullying. It also includes in the definition acts that would physically or emotionally harm a student, as well as conduct that disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of schools. In addition, the bill would expand the areas where harassment, intimidation or bullying is prohibited to include school buses and bus stops.

“We make our best decisions when we have data on which to make those decisions.” – Sen. Richard Browning

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday accepted an amendment from Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, that would require schools to report such incidents.

“We make our best decisions when we have data on which to make those decisions,” he said. “So I’d like to insert language in here that would require the state Department of Education to come up with a policy whereby schools could report to their local boards of education, and those boards of education report to the state board, who would report to LOCEA on the types and nature of bullying that’s occurring in their schools today.”

LOCEA is the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability, one of many legislative interim committees that meet monthly to study issues between regular sessions of the Legislature.

Browning said he wants to require the reports so lawmakers will know “whether it’s just old-fashioned fisticuffs or cyber-bullying or what.”

When the bill reached the full Senate Thursday evening, Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, substituted a revised version of Browning’s amendment to have the incidents reported on the West Virginia Education Information System (WVEIS).

“This has been agreed by the House, and if we would do this language in this, they will accept all the aspects of the bill that we put in,” Plymale told his colleagues. He said the reporting would start July 1, 2012, through LOCEA.

House Bill 3225 goes back to the House of Delegates for its approval of the Senate changes. If that approval is given, the bill will go to the governor for his signature.

The bill’s easy passage through the Senate contrasts with its reception in the House, where representatives of conservative groups opposed it. They charged that the bill was being used to promote “a homosexual agenda” to give special protections to gay and lesbian students, although the bill never made any reference to sexual preferences. Earlier, a representative of Fairness West Virginia, a civil rights advocacy group, urged delegates to acknowledge that most incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying in schools are directed against students who are gay or perceived to be gay, but members of the House Education Committee did not accept his assertion.

When House Bill 3225 passed in the House of Delegates, it was on a vote of 80 to 20.

 

By Jim Wallace

Several bills are getting close to being sent to the governor to be signed into law, but they still have to cross a few more hurdles before the 60-day regular session of the Legislature ends at midnight Saturday evening.

“This bill requires that teachers in their first and second year of employment be evaluated two times per year and that, of those two evaluations, requires a minimum of two observations of 30 minutes each.” – Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale

The Senate has approved House Bill 2757 but made some changes in it, so it’s waiting to see if the House will go along with those changes. The bill deals with evaluations for teachers and other professional personnel.

“We changed some of the dates for early notification,” Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, explained to his colleagues in the Senate. “We’ve had a vast amount of [reductions in force] happening throughout the state. We’re taking all those notification dates back to the way they originally were. This bill requires that teachers in their first and second year of employment be evaluated two times per year and that, of those two evaluations, requires a minimum of two observations of 30 minutes each.”

Teachers with more experience would not need such formal evaluations unless they had had problems in the past.

The Senate also is waiting to see if the House will accept its changes to House Bill 3034, which is designed to recognize students who are among the top performers in various subjects on the WESTEST2. The idea behind the bill is to give students incentives to perform well on the test, because there are reports that even some of the best students do not try very hard on it. The Senate amendment would make WESTEST2 scores part of students’ records, although the scores would not be figured into their grades.

House Bill 3116, which expands on the concept of school curriculum teams, has received the first of its three required readings in the Senate, and could pass on Saturday, if not sooner. The bill would provide school personnel with increased opportunity to have more say in school operations and provide more flexibility for teams at schools that have met adequate yearly progress or other standards. If it gets through the Senate, the House will have to decide whether to accept a Senate amendment.

House Bill 2164 cleared the Senate Education Committee Thursday, but it still must get approval from the Senate Finance Committee if it is to go to a vote before the full Senate. It deals with the computation of the local share in public school support. It would require a county commission to pay the difference if the calculation of the total assessed value for local share is more than the actual total assessed value.

House Bill 3171 also got the Senate Education Committee’s approval Thursday but must yet go through the Senate Finance Committee. It would require the Center for Professional Development to provide training for school personnel in maintaining the safety of schools.

 

House approves Senate bills.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House of Delegates approved Senate Bill 592 Thursday but with some changes. So the bill must go back to the Senate to see if the senators will accept those changes. The bill would require schools to have crisis response plans.

“I happen to think that this particular bill is one of the better education bills we have this year,” Delegate Stan Shaver, D-Preston, said when the House Education Committee approved the bill this week. “My reasoning for that very simply is that, in doing some research and looking at the background for this particular process, I was absolutely shocked that there is no state board code reference to this or there is no specific policy in reference to the fact that a school has to have a crisis response planning team.”

That’s not to say that West Virginia schools don’t have some plans for dealing with emergencies, but Shaver said he likes the way the bill would strengthen requirements for such plans.

“I was told today that we would be the leader in the nation by going down this road, because we would be the first state to have a centralized crisis response management plan that everyone could hook into and have a uniform code of process of being able to do this.” – Delegate Stan Shaver

“I was told today that we would be the leader in the nation by going down this road, because we would be the first state to have a centralized crisis response management plan that everyone could hook into and have a uniform code of process of being able to do this,” he said. “I think for the first year there are going to be some people having a little heartburn, because they got to put all this access into the new homeland security system. But once it’s there, the only thing they’re really going to have to do is update it. It’s going to be more thorough and efficient.” 

The House is close to passing Senate Bill 373, which would have the School Building Authority provide funding for comprehensive middle schools with facilities for career-technology classes.

When the House Education Committee considered the bill on Monday, Mark Manchin, executive director of the authority, assured members they were not voting to increase spending.

“This does not give us any additional debt,” he said. “This is already existing debt. We just want to access $15 million of that two years in advance.”

If the House does pass Senate Bill 373, it will have to go back to the Senate for further approval, because the House made changes in the bill.

Also getting House approval with slight changes was Senate Bill 612, which would provide exemptions from state code for Innovation Zone projects in Cabell County and Clay County.

 

By Jim Wallace

Although the 2011 session of the Legislature is not over yet, lawmakers are already looking ahead to what issues they might address in the 2012 session. The House Education Committee and the Senate Education Committee have approved several resolutions that call for studies of proposals that could turn into legislation for next year’s session. The studies would be conducted during monthly legislative interim meetings.

One of them would consider creating “a pathway to proficiency” for third graders though eleventh graders. That was the subject of House Bill 3199, which failed to make it out of the House Education Committee this year. But a subcommittee led by the bill’s sponsor, Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson, decided the concept is worth further consideration and the rest of the House Education Committee agreed to recommend it to the full House of Delegates.

If it had passed, House Bill 3199 would have required the state school board to develop a Second Chance Option test for those students who do not achieve certain levels in two content areas of the state summative assessment test, the WESTEST2. The bill would have required county school boards to implement critical skills building plans for those students who do not increase their proficiencies by at least one level after taking the Second Option Test. School systems also would have had to provide suitable facilities to implement the instructional programs. But the bill would have preserved a teacher’s judgment on student retention decisions and preserved individualized education plans.

 

Low-income students could get used computers from businesses.

Another issue the House Education Committee wants an interim committee to consider is a proposal for economic-disadvantaged students to receive used computers donated by businesses. It would allow school systems to get the computers for the students, similar to a program that has been used in Los Angeles.

David Mohr, the committee’s senior policy analyst, said school systems use computers so long that they are “pretty much shot” when the schools are done with them, so a program to recycle school computers has not been very successful. Delegate David Perry, D-Fayette, agreed that when schools take computers out of service, they are useless. But it was noted that businesses tend to replace computers about every three years, so the computers they discard still could be useful.

House Education Chairwoman Mary Poling, D-Barbour, agreed that computers left over from industry would likely be in good enough shape to be useful to students. Lawrence also expressed support for the proposal.

“I work for a large company with a large IT department, and we do this every year,” she said, adding she was sure other businesses in West Virginia would be willing to donate used computers for use by students who could not afford to buy them on their own.

 

Schools could be required to participate in recycling.

A third resolution approved by the House Education Committee would call for mandatory recycling at schools. It was suggested that such recycling could be profitable for the schools, but lawmakers would study the feasibility of that during their interim meetings.

Poling said there was a bill that would have required schools to participate in recycling efforts, but it did not run. “We were concerned about running the bill before we made sure there was a capacity to do this,” she said.

Delegate Marty Gearhart, R-Mercer, wanted to remove the word “mandatory” from the resolution, but Delegate Brady Paxton, D-Putnam, opposed that as counterproductive, and the committee rejected Gearhart’s amendment.

“Every school has it, and I know it’s been quite successful. This program has been working beautifully to save the schools a lot of money.” – Delegate Linda Sumner

Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, supported the resolution and noted that Raleigh County has had a huge recycling program that makes money for schools. She suggested studying that program to see how it works.

“Every school has it, and I know it’s been quite successful,” she said. “This program has been working beautifully to save the schools a lot of money.”

Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire, also supported the resolution.

“In Hampshire County, Romney Middle School has the Green Team,” she said. “It has not only encouraged recycling but it’s teamwork, it’s just a variety of things young people can get together and do in a positive way. So I speak highly in favor of this.”

Likewise, Paxton said Putnam County schools have a recycling program.

 

Senate committee wants half a dozen studies.

The Senate Education Committee approved six resolutions that could lead to studies during monthly legislative interim meetings. One study would consider the feasibility and potential methods of making WESTEST2 results count as part of students’ grades. The idea is to motivate them to perform better on the test.

The study in the second resolution would consider methods to improve the fairness of interscholastic competition between private schools and public schools. One reason given for the study is that private schools with no zoning limitations can draw students from wider areas than public schools that draw students mostly from attendance zones defined by county school boards.

“This puts public schools that are currently combined with private schools in the same classification at a disadvantage when competing in interscholastic activities.” – Senate resolution

“This puts public schools that are currently combined with private schools in the same classification at a disadvantage when competing in interscholastic activities,” the resolution states.

Two solutions to the problem are suggested:

  • One would completely separate all private schools into one classification so they would compete with other private schools with similar student bodies.
  • The other would allow private schools to compete with public schools in the existing three classifications, but each private school’s classification would be based on its “geographical pull area and recruitment ability” instead of the size of its student body.

Studies would consider teachers’ certification and incentives, digital learning and school salaries.

 

The third resolution calls for a study of alternative routes for certification of teachers and principals. Included would be a comparison of West Virginia’s alternative certification laws and policies with those of other states and a comprehensive review of West Virginia’s alternative certification programs. An outside consultant would be hired to conduct the study.

The study called for by the fourth resolution would determine the value of implementing a professional career ladder program for teachers tied to student growth. It would include consideration of research into national and state initiatives with similar objectives.

The fifth resolution calls for a study into the implementation of 10 elements of high-quality digital learning and the implementation of the state school board’s Middle School Global 21 initiative.

The final resolution would have lawmakers study teacher salaries. The study would include:

  • The possible need for establishing a formula or ratio that ties classroom teachers’ salaries to those of central office employees;
  • The disparity between teacher salaries and the salaries of the state superintendent and county superintendents, as well as potential salary caps, salary formulas and the linking of further salary increases for superintendents to teachers’ salaries; and
  • The language limitation of school levies.

If the rest of the Legislature agrees with these recommendations – particularly the legislative leaders on the Joint Committee on Government and Finance – one or more joint committees of Senate and House members will study the issues during monthly legislative interim meetings leading up to the 2012 session of the Legislature.

 

By Jim Wallace

A few of the key players think the current legislative session could be a good one for public education, although it’s not certain yet that some of the bills they like will get through the full legislative process.

House Education Chairwoman Mary Poling, D-Barbour, said her assessment of the session “will depend on the bills that we get out of the Senate.” She said her committee has worked diligently to finish work on some higher education bills the House received from the Senate, but she’s still anxious to find out what the Senate ends up doing with the House bills.

“Overall, I think we have some good legislation out there.” – House Education Committee Chairwoman Mary Poling

“Overall, I think we have some good legislation out there,” Poling said.

Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, is pleased the Senate dealt with such issues as digital learning and changes in middle schools.

“We’ve looked at a number of areas like that,” he said. “I think we’ve had a pretty productive session from that standpoint. As it relates to amount of bills passed, I think it’s more the quality of the bills that you’re passing than the quantity.”

“As it relates to amount of bills passed, I think it’s more the quality of the bills that you’re passing than the quantity.” – Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale

West Virginia Education Chairman Dale Lee is still hoping that the House and Senate can work out their differences in bills that would give teachers pay raises.

“Teachers haven’t received a pay raise in the last few years,” he said. “It’s important that we recognize that salary is one of the reasons we have a number of classrooms across the state without certified teachers in them. We have to address that issue. I would prefer multi-year [pay raises], but we’ll see what the conferees come up with and work diligently toward increasing the salary to ensure that every child in West Virginia has a certified teacher in front of them.”

Lee also is pleased that lawmakers might be close to passing a bill that would establish that it’s the responsibility of the state – not county school boards – to deal with the liability for OPEB – other post-employment benefits. He said that could free up more money in school systems for students and teachers.

Dale Lee: I’m very pleased with the latest OPEB bill. “The pay bills – at least there’s a bill from each house and it’s in conference. I would hope that we can reach an agreement on that. Teachers haven’t received a pay raise in the last few years. It’s important that we recognize that salary is one of the reasons we have a number of classrooms across the state without certified teachers in them. We have to address that issue. I would prefer multi-year, but we’ll see what the conferees come up with and work diligently toward increasing the salary to ensure that every child in West Virginia has a certified teacher in front of them.”

Mary Poling: “That will depend on the bills that we get out of the Senate.” We’ve done well getting higher ed bill out. “Overall, I think we have some good legislation out there.”