Legislative News

Overview

Inside

The Thrasher Group

February 1, 2019 - Volume 39 Issue 4

By Jim Wallace

The West Virginia Legislature has considered many big education reform bills in recent years. Sometimes, they have been quite controversial. But it is safe to say none ever was treated the way Senate Bill 451 has been over the last several days.

The bill was scheduled today for the second of three required readings on the Senate floor after going through a tumultuous week of lengthy committee meetings, a rarely used parliamentary procedure and denunciations of the bill by many people, ranging from the governor to the state school board to local school board members and leaders of organizations representing teachers, principals and superintendents. Barring an unusual weekend meeting, the Senate would be expected to be ready to pass the bill on Monday.

Because of its length of more than 140 pages and its breadth of covering a myriad of changes, it has been called the omnibus education bill. But one member of the Senate this week labeled it the “ominous” education bill, and Gov. Jim Justice slipped in talking about the bill by using the word “ominous” during a news conference.

The bill would provide the 5 percent pay raises for teachers and other school workers and increased funding for the Public Employees Insurance Agency, as promised by Gov. Jim Justice. But it also would do many other things, including: allow county school boards to raise levy rates without a vote of the people, set the minimum enrollment for the School Aid Formula at 1,400, eliminate the current definition of equity, provide that district central office administrators and others would serve as will-and-pleasure employees, authorize pay incentives for hard-to-fill positions such as math teachers, allow school boards to base reduction-in-force decisions on factors other than seniority, allow teachers to bank leave time for later benefits, provide a tax credit for teachers who use personal funds to buy classroom supplies, expand the definition of professional student support personnel and provide more funding for them, and provide for the establishment of charter schools.

In addition, the bill would discourage future strikes by teachers by withholding pay for missed days, preventing extracurricular activities at schools on days when classes are cancelled and prohibit an employee’s authorization for union dues to be withheld from paycheck from rolling over automatically from year to year – so-called “paycheck protection.”

Removed from the bill this week was a provision that would have allowed class sizes in elementary grades to be as large as 31 students in some circumstances.

The unusual course of the bill began when it emerged in a meeting of the Senate Education Committee on Thursday, January 24, apparently after little consultation with interested parties, such as the West Virginia Board of Education, leaders in the Department of Education, and leaders of groups representing teachers, school service workers, principals and superintendents – and the governor.

The committee then pushed the bill through to approval by a narrow, party-line vote of seven to five last Friday evening at the end of a five-hour meeting. Usually when a bill originates in a Senate committee, all members of the committee are listed as sponsors, but the Democrats on the committee asked for their names not to be attached to the bill.

In a statement released last Saturday, the Senate Democratic Caucus noted that, even though Democratic members of the Education Committee had not seen the bill before it was introduced, “two out-of-state lobbyists had enough advance notice to schedule flights into the Capital city, read the bill, and prepare presentations for the committee.” One of those lobbyists was Emily Schultz, director of state advocacy and policy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Democrats objected to having the bill pushed through the Education Committee just a day after it was revealed because that did not give them the opportunity to confer with school boards, teachers and other constituents before the bill came to a vote.

“The education of our children is so important in West Virginia that to try to rush through comprehensive changes in this fashion is unconscionable,” Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said. He not only is one of the longest-serving members of the committee but also served as chairman of the committee for several years when Democrats held a majority in the Senate.

“We are witnessing the dismantling of public education by ambush.” – Sen. Mike Romano

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said, “We are witnessing the dismantling of public education by ambush.”

On the other side, Carmichael defended the Senate Republicans’ approach in his statement on Monday. “Providing a world-class education for West Virginia students and children is among the most important functions of state government,” he said. “Virtually every national entity that ranks student performance has reported poor statistics for our state. There is no question that our educational system needs critical reform, and it needs reform right now.”

Some people objected to provisions in the bill that would withhold teachers’ pay when they engage is a strike, prevent schools from holding extracurricular activities on any day when classes are cancelled and require members of unions for teachers and school service workers to reaffirm each year that they wants union dues withheld from their paychecks rather than letting such authorization roll over from year to year.

“Many people feel this education bill is nothing more than retaliation for the embarrassment teachers caused the GOP last year,” Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, said, referring to the nine-day, statewide teachers’ strike in 2018 that led to passage of a 5 percent pay raise for teachers and other public employees. “They might be onto something.”

Another provision of the bill that received much criticism is one that would allow county school boards to increase property tax rates by a simple majority vote of board members rather than a vote of the people.

On Monday, before the Senate could take further action on Senate Bill 451, leaders of the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, the West Virginia Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals, the West Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals and the West Virginia Association of School Administrators held a news conference to denounce the bill.

“Where were we when this bill was being constructed?” Mickey Blackwell, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals,” said. “We weren’t being consulted. We weren’t being called. We weren’t being notified. We were only hearing rumor, and we were not being contacted by our legislators. We have grave concerns about the democratic process here in West Virginia.”

“The speed at which the bill advanced is concerning and begs the question: Why? Why did committee members have so little time to review the legislation and to talk with their constituents? Why were members of the education community not asked to address the bill?” – Supt. Blaine Hess

Likewise, Jackson County Supt. Blaine Hess, vice president of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators, said, “The speed at which the bill advanced is concerning and begs the question: Why? Why did committee members have so little time to review the legislation and to talk with their constituents? Why were members of the education community not asked to address the bill?”

Leaders of the other organizations made similar comments.

Bill followed a strange path.

The most unusual twist in Senate Bill 451’s legislative journey came shortly after that news conference on Monday. The bill was scheduled to go to the Senate Finance Committee for further consideration, but Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, decided instead to assign it to a Committee of the Whole, consisting of all 34 senators rather than just the 17 assigned to the Finance Committee. Only twice before, in 1917 and 1961, had the Senate ever met as a Committee of the Whole.

Many people suggested Carmichael made that move only because the bill faced doubtful survival in the Finance Committee after two Republican members, Kenny Mann of Monroe County and Bill Hamilton of Upshur County, expressed their opposition to the bill. If they had joined the seven Democrats on the committee in voting against the bill, it likely would have been defeated by a vote of nine to eight. By sending the bill to the whole Senate, it was expected to be able to pass on a vote of 18 to 16, even if Mann and Hamilton voted with all the Democrats. However, Carmichael contended his unusual move was only in the interest of good government.

“We believed the Committee of the Whole served as the most open, transparent way to conduct the thorough vetting of this piece of important legislation.” – Senate President Mitch Carmichael

“An issue of this magnitude should not have input from only members of the Education and Finance Committees,” he said in a statement released on Monday. “It should have the input of all members of the Senate as we work toward our shared goal of improving student achievement across the board, at all grade levels, in all areas of the state. We believed the Committee of the Whole served as the most open, transparent way to conduct the thorough vetting of this piece of important legislation.”

But Senate Democrats did not see it that way. “I have never, in all my time in Charleston, seen such a bald-faced, self-serving and mean-spirited political evasion,” Prezioso said. “It shows total disrespect for the democratic process.”

On Tuesday, the newest member of the Senate, Paul Hardesty, D-Logan, spoke to his Senate colleagues but offered an apology to public school teachers across West Virginia. “My apology to the 20,000 educators is simply this: You have been disrespected in certain portions of this bill, and for that, I am profusely sorry.”

Hardesty, who previously served as president of the Logan County Board of Education, suggested that public schools were being blamed unfairly for not being more successful at a time when many students are suffering from the ills of society.

“If you have engaged parents with children, you will have positive outcomes,” he said. “I think we can all agree upon that. At least, I hope we can. But what we’re not factoring in is the number of broken homes – no parents – don’t know who the parent is – Grandma and Grandpa trying to raise a child that has been dumped into their lap.”

Considering change and choice in the public school system is fair, Hardesty said, but Senate Bill 451 isn’t.

“I’m not going to use the word ‘omnibus;’ I will use the word ‘ominous,’” he said. “This change and choice that you seek cannot come at the expense of decimating an already-fragile public education system.”

Hardesty warned that the bill would lead to unintended consequences, such as more difficulties in recruiting certified teachers, as well as costs reaching at least several tens of millions of dollars.

Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, said such criticism of the bill made his blood pressure rise. “I don’t mind spending the money to fix education,” he said. “I think it’s money well invested, and I think this will help fix education. And we’re talking about decimating education? It’s broken. It’s fractured. It’s decimated, OK. We’re last. We’re at the bottom.”

When half of West Virginia’s public schools have problems with chronic absenteeism, it’s time for change, Maroney said. In addition, he said, the 5 percent pay raise in the bill, combined with last year’s 5 percent raise, would result in more money going to teachers in two years than legislators likely have given them in any previous 10-year period.

Maroney also rejected the argument that sending the bill to the Committee of the Whole would bypass the Finance Committee. “We’re not skipping the Finance Committee,” he said. “The Finance Committee is in this room. It’s a better Finance Committee because it has 34 people, not 17.”

In addition, he focused on an aspect of the bill he said was being overlooked: a provision that would allow every school to hire child support personnel, such as a nurse, a guidance counselor or a psychologist, and require 100 percent of such individuals’ time to be devoted to their key duties rather than allowing them to spend 25 percent of their time on other activities. He said that would provide more direct help for children.

“Maybe they’ll save a life,” Maroney said. “There’s school violence. Maybe they’ll save a whole bunch of lives one day.”

Governor comes out against the bill.

Before the Senate could address Senate Bill 451 further, Gov. Justice held a news conference Tuesday to urge senators to set it aside and simply pass his recommended bills, including those to raise pay for teachers and school service workers and put $150 million into the Public Employees Insurance Agency. He said Senate Bill 451 was “just creating a mess when a mess doesn’t need to be created.”

“This just irritates the peanuts out of me.” – Gov. Jim Justice

Justice said he supported some aspects of the bill, including pay raises for educators, allowing teachers to bank sick leave, and providing incentives for recruiting and retaining math teachers. “But I just wish we would look at those issues individually and evaluate them that way,” he said. “This just irritates the peanuts out of me.”

Parts of the bill he objected to include: the statewide establishment of charter schools, which he is “absolutely against”; so-called paycheck protection, which would not allow permission to deduct union dues from paycheck to roll over from year to year, and the non-severability clause, which he called “absolutely terrible.” Non-severability means if any part of the bill would be struck down, the whole bill would be struck down. In other words, if something like the charter schools provision would be found to be unconstitutional, the teachers’ pay raises and other sections favorable to most people also would be thrown out.

“We have not, by any means, perfected our public schools, and for crying out loud, we need to concentrate on our public schools.” – Gov. Jim Justice

“We have not, by any means, perfected our public schools, and for crying out loud, we need to concentrate on our public schools,” Justice said. “Now, does that mean never a charter school? Of course not.” He said authorizing charter schools should be limited, rather than “opening Pandora’s Box.”

The governor said he would veto the bill if it included so-called paycheck protection and charter schools, although in West Virginia, it takes just a majority vote in each house of the legislature to override a veto.

Justice also agreed with people who see Senate Bill 451 as retaliation against teachers for last year’s strike and objected to its being used that way. “I’m not into this hit-back deal just to be hitting back,” he said.

Fiscal notes indicate bill could be expensive.

While people formed their opinions for and against Senate Bill 451, state agencies that would be affected financially by its provisions developed fiscal notes to let legislators know how much it would cost. The Department of Education estimated its total cost would be $136,725,697. That includes additional costs for salary increases for teachers and service personnel, the various changes to the School Aid Formula, the proposed one-time salary supplement for math teachers, and the anticipated operating costs for the new West Virginia Public Charter School Commission.

The Higher Education Policy Commission estimated the bill’s total costs for higher education would be about $1.1 million. That’s because it would replace the current Underwood-Smith Teacher Loan Assistance Program with the proposed Underwood-Smith Teacher Scholarship and Loan Assistance Program. The current program costs about $328,000 a year. The proposed new program would cost about $772,000 a year, and the $328,000 a year for the current program would have to continue several years until it could be phased out.

The Public Employees Insurance Agency had to figure out the costs of allowing teachers to bank sick leave days to exchange later for health care benefits on retirement and to what it might cost to allow charter schools to participate in PEIA’s voluntary risk pool for non-state agencies. Because of time constraints, PEIA had to make certain assumptions and make its estimates without turning to actuaries for help. The agency estimated that 7,800 policyholders would convert leave time for health insurance, which would increase the liability for OPEB (other post-employment benefits) by $35 million. That would “significantly undermine” perception of the state’s dedication to resolve unfunded liabilities and hurt the state’s credit rating, the fiscal note states. The proposed leave conversion benefit also would affect PEIA expenses and cash, and it would require additional premiums of $27.6 million annually.

Finally, the state Treasurer’s Office estimated the proposed education savings accounts would create various costs totaling $870,000 for the first year, $620,000 for the second year and $595,000 for each following year, not counting inflation. Part of the agency’s calculation is that that litigation could result from establishing the education savings accounts, as has happened in other states, so the fiscal note includes an estimate of $200,000 in legal expenses.

Much attention to the bill was packed into one day.

Wednesday turned out to be a marathon day of meetings. Not only did the Committee of the Whole meet for several hours, but the state school board held an emergency meeting to review Senate Bill 451 and provide its views to the legislature. In addition, the Kanawha County Board of Education met and issued a statement against the bill.

“The lightning speed with which this bill has moved has necessitated this meeting,” Dave Perry, president of the state school board, said at the beginning of the board’s meeting.

State Supt. Steve Paine expressed his dismay that the Senate had not consulted him or other Department of Education officials as they developed Senate Bill 451. He said he had felt good when Gov. Justice promised educators a pay raise a few months ago. “I had no idea that pay raise bill would have amended into it or added into it all the different components of this omnibus bill,” he said.

Paine further complained that the Senate seemed only to have consulted with proponents of charter schools and ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of conservative state legislators and private sector interests who draft model legislation to spread among state legislatures. “They seem to want to drive this agenda of charter schools and educational savings accounts,” he said. “Our community schools are the backbone and the heartbeat of the state.”

“I’ve been stewing about this a long time. I respect the legislature, and I respect the legislative process. I would hope they respect us.” – Supt. Steve Paine

In addition, Paine said, “I’ve been stewing about this a long time. I respect the legislature, and I respect the legislative process. I would hope they respect us.”

The state board then went through each part of the bill and decided which ones to endorse and which ones to not endorse. The board endorsed these provisions:

  • Pay increases of 5 percent for teachers.
  • Pay increases of 5 percent for school service personnel.
  • Supplements equivalent to three additional years of experience for certified math teachers who teach math at least 60 percent of the time.
  • One-time supplements of $2,000 each for middle school and high school math teachers who complete a specialized math course and teach math at least 60 percent of the time.
  • Allowing county school boards to provide salary supplements to certified teachers filling critical needs and shortages or who teach in schools in remote geographic locations or teach in locations that have experienced high rates of turnover among experienced teachers.
  • Setting 1,400 students as a net enrollment floor for determining a county’s basic foundation in the School Aid Formula. (Currently, 11 counties have net enrollment below 1,400.)
  • Expansion of the definition of professional student support personnel from just nurses and counselors to include any professional providing direct social and emotional student support services – such as social workers and psychologists.
  • Tax credits of up to $250 for teachers who spend their own funds on classroom supplies.
  • Requiring schools to make “meaningful contact” with parents or guardians when students have three unexcused absences or five unexcused absences, instead of requiring a written notice to be sent.
  • Increasing Step 5 funding for professional student support personnel by removing the current statutory cap and using a ratio of 4.70 per 1,000 students.
  • Increasing Step 6a funding for current operations by 1 percent.
  • Placing a cap on every county’s local share amount equal to the level in fiscal year 2016 and letting districts keep additional funds if the local share increases above the 2016 level. (This provision would affect 36 school districts.)
  • Changing the focus of the Underwood-Smith Scholarship Program to encourage students to pursue teaching careers in math, science or special education in West Virginia.
  • Requiring county school boards to notify employees in writing about applicable coverage provided by the West Virginia Board of Risk and Insurance Management.

The state board also voted to endorse a few more provisions of the bill with added provisos:

  • Allowing county school boards to increase their districts’ levy rates up to the statutory maximum amount, as long as no district would experience a loss in state funding.
  • Allowing teachers to bank accrued leave by converting 10 days of accrued leave to $500, as long as school service personnel could get the same benefit.
  • Removing the percentages of counselors’ time to be spent on administrative duties and clarifying that counselors’ main responsibility is to provide direct counseling and support for students, as long as no less than 75 percent of their time is spent counseling students.
  • Declaring that a teacher’s recommendation on whether a student should advance to the next grade level should be an “important consideration” in making that determination, rather than the “primary consideration,” as stated in Senate Bill 451.

The provisions of the bill the state board voted not to endorse include:

  • The severability clause, declaring that, if any part of the bill would be struck down by the legal system, the rest of the bill would be thrown out.
  • Allowing county school boards to establish open enrollment policies, a change from the current inter-county transfer process.
  • Making central office staff will-and-pleasure employees of the county superintendent and allowing them to be removed by the superintendent with approval of the county school board.
  • Requiring the withholding of pay of employees for school days closed because of work stoppages and prohibiting interscholastic athletic events from being held on days when a school is closed because of work stoppages.
  • Establishment of public charter schools.
  • Establishment of education savings accounts.
  • Changing the statutory equity payment to teachers and school service personnel to a state supplement.
  • So-called payroll protection, which would prevent authorization for union dues to be withheld from paychecks from rolling over from year to year.

On two parts of the bill, the state board decided to take no position:

  • Changing the current statutory requirement that reduction-in-force decisions should be based on seniority and requiring instead that they be based on qualifications.
  • Requiring employees to accrue personal leave time as they go through the school year rather than being eligible for 15 days as soon as the school year begins.

The state school board also voted to recommend that each item in Senate Bill 451 should be considered in separate pieces of legislation and to notify leaders of the Senate and the House of Delegates, as well as the governor, of the decisions the board took at its emergency meeting. Finally, the board voted to create a commission on how to establish a world-class education environment in West Virginia. It would include all teacher organizations, the Parent-Teacher Association, the state board, the West Virginia School Board Association, the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association and legislative leaders.

“I would hope the Senate and House would take our recommendations under advisement as they deliberate.” – Dave Perry

“I would hope the Senate and House would take our recommendations under advisement as they deliberate,” Perry, who is a former member of the House of Delegates, said.

On the same day, the state school board met, the Kanawha County Board of Education also met and issued this statement: “The Kanawha County Board of Education opposes any and all efforts to use public funds for education reform or make any changes that does not lead to higher student achievement for the most disadvantaged students; and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT: Taxation and policy decisions which result in reduced revenues for public education and/or have a negative impact on our students and families must be avoided.”

Senate spent long hours on the bill.

Of course, the main focus of activities on Wednesday was the meeting of the Senate’s Committee of the Whole. It began shortly after eleven o’clock in the morning and ran until about 8:30 in the evening with only two breaks – one for lunch and one to evacuate the Capitol early in the afternoon when an alarm went off for some unexplained reason.

Senators went over the bill line-by-line with help from staff attorneys, followed by testimony from a few people brought in for their expertise. The long meeting did not seem to sway any senator’s stance on the bill, but it allowed them to address many of their concerns, including whether county school boards should be allowed to raise levy rates without a vote of the people.

Much of the discussion was over whether charter schools would improve education in West Virginia by providing competition and innovation or drain resources from the public school system, which already is struggling.

“This bill is going to lead to probably one of the largest consolidation efforts this state has ever experienced.” – Supt. Terry George

Emily Schultz of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told the Senate, “The purpose of our public schools is to give every child a great education, and that is exactly what charter schools can do.” But Terry George, superintendent of Fayette County schools, said charter schools and educational savings accounts would take resources away from local schools. “This bill is going to lead to probably one of the largest consolidation efforts this state has ever experienced,” he said.

When the Committee of the Whole held a much briefer and final meeting Thursday morning, members heard from Christy Black, advocacy specialist for the West Virginia Developmental Disabilities Council and mother of two girls, including a 15-year-old with Down’s syndrome. She said her biggest concerns were that education savings accounts and charter schools would hurt the 39,464 West Virginia students who receive special education services.

“By withdrawing a student from public schools and particularly to access an ESA, [parents] are waiving that student’s civil rights and their right to due process,” Black said.” ESAs would inadvertently reinforce the lack of expectations for students with disabilities, not to mention that an ESA would not come close to covering the cost of educating a student with a disability.”

She concluded, “There is a breakdown in the public education system, and it does need fixed. However, this bill is not the answer.”

Nevertheless, a slim majority of the Senate decided it is the answer. The vote in favor of Senate Bill 451 by the Committee of the Whole was 18 to 16 with Republicans Mann and Hamilton siding with all the Democrats in opposing the bill. Later, the Senate voted the same way to give the bill the first of its three required readings. That means it was scheduled for second reading today. That’s the amendment stage, and Democrats were expected to propose a series of amendments to get their Republican counterparts on record on the controversial components of the bill.

Bill could go to House next week.

If the 18-16 split remains intact, the Senate could pass Senate Bill 451 as early as Monday. That would send it to the House of Delegates. It’s too soon to say what reception it might receive in the House, but Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, released a statement saying the House would seek input from all sides, including teachers, parents, administrators, and unions representing teachers and service employees.

“We will carefully review all options and work diligently to build a consensus on how to provide our children with the highest-quality educational experience possible,” he said. “We know this is a sensitive topic, and passions are heightened on all sides of these issues. It is my hope that we can move forward in a rational and deliberate manner to improve our education system for students, teachers and all involved.”

At the end of the House floor session on Thursday, Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, gave a speech in which he seemed to indicate support for the Senate’s bill.

“Our system, my friends, is choking. It’s choking itself. Our School Aid Formula promotes only basic average, the minimum for all, and we fall short of that. The system disallows the very things we’re gasping for – the local control, the innovation, the flexibility, freedom and choice in education.” – Delegate Daryl Cowles

“The centralized system, I think, is ripe for changes – the lack of local control, the lack of innovation, the lack of freedom and flexibility for students and parents,” he said. “Our system, my friends, is choking. It’s choking itself. Our School Aid Formula promotes only basic average, the minimum for all, and we fall short of that. The system disallows the very things we’re gasping for – the local control, the innovation, the flexibility, freedom and choice in education. My question, Mr. Speaker, is: How long shall we fail to act? Is our education system last in the nation, or are we only second to last?”

Meanwhile, many teachers have been watching the developments on Senate Bill 451 carefully – both from afar and from the Capitol galleries, meeting rooms and hallways. Weather-related school closures allowed some of them to show up at the Capitol wearing the red shirts that became a familiar sight during last year’s strike. So far, they have held off on calling for new walkouts, but the legislative session still has several weeks to go, and much could happen in that time.

The Kanawha County Board of Education, meeting January 30, 2019, adopted a resolution opposing adoption of Senate Bill 451.

The Kanawha Board joins other counties in adopting a resolution opposing the bill or contacting legislators, asking lawmakers to oppose bill.

The West Virginia School Board Association (WVSBA) forwarded a “WVSBA Senate Omnibus Pubic Education Bill Statement” regarding the measure Monday, January 28.

Here is the link to that “Statement.” http://www.wvsba.org/sites/default/files/documents/WVSBA%20Omnibus%20bill%20statement%204.pdf

The Kanawha County Board of Education Resolution reads:

WHEREAS: West Virginia's entire Public Education system continues to be underfunded, leading to shortages in teachers, service personnel, nurses, librarians, psychologists, counselors, bus drivers and special education staff; and WHEREAS: County Boards of Education budgets are already severely strained due to previous cuts made to appropriations to the school aid formula; and

WHEREAS: A bill has been originated by the Senate Education committee which proposes certain reforms to public education in West Virginia (the "Omnibus Bill");

WHEREAS: The legislature has a duty to provide a thorough and efficient system of free schools in the State and the Kanawha County Board of Education has been delegated such duty for Kanawha County, West Virginia; and WHE REAS: To the extent reform to West Virginia' s public education system is needed, such reform should have the goal of increasing student achievement for the most disadvantaged children that do not have the resources, parental guidance and general support to succeed in our current system; and WHEREAS: The opioid problem has additionally put a strain on our educational system that has furthered the difficulty in educating our most disadvantaged children due to the increase in number and magnitude of behavioral issues in children; and

WHEREAS: Public schools are at the heart of the community well-being; and

WHEREAS: Reduction in State financial support will negatively impact our ability to serve the children and families of our community; and

WHEREAS: Research and experience across the country have shown that implementation of certain aspects of the bill has a high likelihood of adversely affecting the education of the most disadvantaged children in our system; and

WHEREAS: Certain provisions of the current proposed Omnibus Bill is detrimental to our public schools and the ability of the Kanawha County Board of Education to provide a thorough and efficient system for all students in Kanawha County; and

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT: The Kanawha County Board of Education opposes any and all efforts to use public funds for education reform or make any changes that does not lead to higher student achievement for the most disadvantaged students;

and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT: Taxation and policy decisions which result in reduced revenues for public education and/or have a negative impact on our students and families must be avoided.

The above resolution was approved at the January 30, 20 l 9 Special Session of the Kanawha County School Board.

By Jim Wallace

The House Education Committee has approved House Bill 2620, which would change how schools handle students’ unexcused absences. It would specify that a principal may make “meaningful contact” with parents or guardians after a student has accrued there unexcused absences and require “meaningful contact” after a student has accrued five unexcused absences.

Some committee members wondered what “meaningful contact” would be and whether the bill would weaken the current law covering unexcused absences. But Michele Blatt, assistant state superintendent, said meaningful contact could be an email, a phone call, a conference or a letter.

“The way we were looking at it is we want to get at the heart of the reasons some of our most troubled students are absent, the ones that are truly truant.” – Michele Blatt

“The way we were looking at it is we want to get at the heart of the reasons some of our most troubled students are absent, the ones that are truly truant,” she said. “So it gives the principal the flexibility to decide based on what they know about that student what level of contact they need to make. We just seem to have tied the hands of principals and our attendance directors with spending days in the office sending out letters and not making any impact on the needs of the students and increasing our attendance rates.”

Blatt said the Education Department is focusing on chronic absenteeism by students because more than half of the state’s schools have huge problems with chronic absenteeism. One county spent $15,000 on postage stamps, and most of the letters were returned because students had moved without updating their addresses, she said.

Although “meaningful contact” might sound vague, she said, it would free up attendance directors to focus on kids who are chronically absent and struggling.

“It frees up the time to focus in on the students that are truly truant and need our support,” Blatt said.

House Bill 2620 has goes to House Judiciary Committee for further consideration.

By Jim Wallace

Public schools could be used for certain funerals under a bill approved by the Senate Education Committee.

Senate Bill 154 makes this statement: “Public schools in this state serve as an integral part of the community, and the death of a community member of distinction who was a military service member or veteran who served under honorable conditions or who served as a first responder can have a significant impact on students and the surrounding community.”

Therefore, it calls for county school boards to allow school facilities to be used for such funerals or memorial services. The boards would be allowed to set up processes to handle requests for such use, but they would not be allowed to bear any additional costs as a result of holding funerals or memorial services. The bill also would prohibit such services to disrupt with classroom instruction or other school activities.

According to various senators the bill is based on a situation arising in Putnam County.

By Jim Wallace

A bill that would put a new requirement for hiring school psychologists or psychiatrists into law has cleared the first of two committees in the House of Delegates.

House Bill 2397 would require county school boards to have at least one school psychologist for every 500 kindergarten through seventh grade students. As introduced, the bill would have set the ratio at one psychologist for every 1,000 students. Current state law establishes no such ratio. The idea is to provide adequate mental health and counseling services for students with problems stemming from the state’s drug crisis.

Karen Cummings, the government and professional relations chairwoman for the West Virginia School Psychologists Association and a school psychologist in Kanawha County, told the committee that the National Association of School Psychologists recommends having one psychologist for every 500 to 700 students. Right now, West Virginia has one psychologist for about every 2,000 students, although that ratio is not required in law, she said.

“Our school systems are overwhelmed with kids who have experienced trauma, and we are experiencing not just behavior problems in schools with teachers struggling to deal with those types of things, and it’s affecting our education because emotional health and your behavior affects the outcomes of your educational performance,” Cummings said. “We don’t have enough mental health professionals working with our schools.”

There are 129 school psychologists in West Virginia, she said. Delegate John Mandt, R-Cabell, did some quick math and figured it would require 516 psychologists in the state to have one for every 500 students, the low end of the national recommendation. If each were paid $40,000, the cost would be $15 million, he said.

“That’s a lot, but it’s something that’s needed,” Mandt said.

School systems would have trouble hiring so many qualified school psychologists, he said. Cummings agreed and said that’s why the ratio in the bill is not one for every 500 to 700 students. Despite that, the committee approved an amendment to place the ratio at one psychologist for every 500 students.

“We have to put our children first. We have to figure out a formula that’s going to begin to take care of our children the minute that we see them in our system.” – Delegate David Kelly

“This has substance,” Delegate David Kelly, R-Tyler, said in speaking in favor of the bill as amended. “We have to put our children first. We have to figure out a formula that’s going to begin to take care of our children the minute that we see them in our system.”

The bill now goes to the House Education Committee.

 

By Jim Wallace

The House Education Committee has approved legislation designed to guide students into vocational education programs. The approval came after the committee accepted a few changes in the bill recommended by a subcommittee, but that subcommittee rejected other proposed changes.

House Bill 2004 is intended to provide better communication to students and parents on career and technical education programs that begin in high school and lead to industry- recognized credentials, certificates of applied science and associate degrees in high-demand, high-wage occupations in West Virginia.

The bill would require the development of guidelines for schools to use in cooperation with local school improvement councils and business partners for communicating to students what skills and attributes they need to be ready to enter the workforce. Information would have to be readily accessible to students, as well as their parents, within the career-and-technical education cluster and major programs of study about the programs at community and technical colleges that are aligned with their high school programs and lead to industry-recognized credentials, certificates of applied science and associate degrees.

Schools also would have to provide information on apprenticeship and occupational licensing requirements for which students already might have gained credit through programs at the secondary school level. Along with that, the bill would require such students to receive transcripts from post-secondary institutions from which they have earned dual credit.

In addition, the bill would attempt to strengthen the integration between career-and-technical education programs in public schools and programs at community and technical colleges that lead to high-demand, high-wage jobs. It also would require identification of which competencies that students already have gained would count toward getting occupational licenses.

The state superintendent of schools and the chancellor of the community and technical college system would have joint responsibility for approving written partnerships and reporting on their implementation to the legislature and the governor.

The main change the subcommittee made in the House Bill 2004 was to change the definition for the word “apprentice.” Other changes were described as just technical cleanup.

But subcommittee rejected a proposal from several Democrats to codify the existing Governor’s Workforce Credentials program. Also rejected was another proposal from Democrats that would have created the Middle School Technical Education Program Act. It would have created a pilot program to better prepare seventh- and eighth-grade students to take advantage of the West Virginia career and technical education program and to improve their readiness for college and careers prior to high school. Participating schools would have had to use existing funds for the program and work with local partners – high schools, vocational schools, community colleges and any other institution of higher learning that receives state funding. The local partners would have provided speakers on career options, and students would have gotten instruction in career skills, performing job searches, preparing resumes, interviewing for jobs, networking for jobs, higher education opportunities.

“It is a mission of ours to make sure our children have the best opportunities to succeed in life,” – Delegate Sean Hornbuckle

“It is a mission of ours to make sure our children have the best opportunities to succeed in life,” Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, said about the proposal.

Although the subcommittee rejected the amendment, Republicans said they would cover that subject in another bill and did not want to down House Bill 2004.

Delegate Patrick Martin, R-Lewis, served as chairman of the subcommittee. Other members included: Caleb Hanna, R-Webster; Rolland Jennings, R-Preston; Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell; and Amanda Estep-Burton, D-Kanawha.

House Bill 2004 now goes to the full House of Delegates.

By Jim Wallace

The issue of whether West Virginia should loosen its law on compulsory immunizations has returned – as it does almost every year. But this year, the introduction of the legislation, Senate Bill 454, on Tuesday happened to come when the state of Washington was under a state of emergency because of a measles outbreak – not the best timing for supporters of the bill.

Sen. Ron Stollings, who is a physician, called his colleagues’ attention to Washington’s woes shortly after the introduction of the bill. He said the bill would allow for the same type of religious and conscientious exemptions that are allowed in Washington.

“When I look back and see these other outbreaks of these vaccine-preventable diseases, there seems to be a halo around states like West Virginia that allows for medical exemptions for vaccines but not for these religious and conscientious objections.” – Sen. Ron Stollings

“When I look back and see these other outbreaks of these vaccine-preventable diseases, there seems to be a halo around states like West Virginia that allows for medical exemptions for vaccines but not for these religious and conscientious objections,” Stollings said. “So I certainly hope that we pay attention, and I encourage people to educate yourselves about the incredible benefit that vaccines bring to society with little or no negative consequences. You might get a sore arm for a day or two after you get your vaccine. And if you do have a medical reason not to get a vaccine, you don’t have to get it in West Virginia. So please educate yourself about how safe vaccines are and how much great benefit they are to society.”

The measles outbreak in Washington occurred in two counties in an area known for having low rates of vaccinations.

“Measles is a highly contagious, infectious disease that can be fatal in small children,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in his declaration of a state of emergency. He said the measles cases create “an extreme public health risk that may quickly spread to other counties.”

However, in West Virginia, the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 454, Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, told his colleagues the bill would not likely result in a “mass exodus” of parents who would opt out of getting their children vaccinated.

“There’s been discontent from parents that have legitimate medical exemption concerns that are not addressed by our current layers of bureaucracy when it comes to getting a medical exemption,” he said. “With religious and conscientious concerns, not only with the increase of autism that is thought to be linked to vaccination, but the fact that embryos that are derived from abortions that are used in these vaccinations, I feel, should be enough reasons for a parent to exempt their child and not be a part of this process and make decisions for their children.”

Although fear that vaccines increase the risk of autism has spread widely, many studies have disproven any link, and health officials have been trying to stamp out the rumors, which began with a now-discredited study published in 1997 in a British medical journal. Recent studies not only have shown autism not to be linked with vaccines but also have shown that it begins in children well before they receive any vaccines and might even begin before babies are born.

In regard to the charge that “embryos that are derived from abortions” are used in vaccinations, it is true that a line of cells derived from an electively aborted fetus several decades ago were used in development of certain vaccines. But no new tissue from abortions is used in creating vaccines these days.

“The people that are concerned and think vaccinations are appropriate for everyone – they will still have the right to have their kids vaccinated and prevent them from getting any of these diseases that are thought to be derived from vaccinations. But this is merely just a freedom bill to allow those that are concerned.” – Sen. Mark Maynard

In making his argument for Senate Bill 454, Maynard said, “The people that are concerned and think vaccinations are appropriate for everyone – they will still have the right to have their kids vaccinated and prevent them from getting any of these diseases that are thought to be derived from vaccinations. But this is merely just a freedom bill to allow those that are concerned.”

However, a small number of people – including infants, pregnant women, certain elderly people and people with weakened immune systems – cannot receive vaccines. They depend on having a large majority of people around them who have been vaccinated, creating what is known as “herd immunity,” which limits the spread of infectious diseases.

Senate Bill 454 would allow not only medical exemptions from compulsory vaccinations but also exemptions based on religious beliefs or a parent’s “conscientious or personal objection to the immunization of the child.” The bill includes similar exemptions for higher education and for workplaces that require immunizations.

The bill has gone to the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee. If it gets through that committee, it must get through the Senate Judiciary Committee before the full Senate can vote on it.

By Jim Wallace

The Senate Education Committee has approved a bill to require the West Virginia Board of Education to adopt a policy on computer science instruction.

Gov. Jim Justice requested Senate Bill 267, which would add two clauses to state law:

  • Recognizing the importance of computer science instruction and how computer science instruction will assist students in their transition to post-secondary opportunities, prior to the 2020-2021 school year, the state board shall adopt a policy detailing the appropriate level of computer science instruction that shall be available to students at each programmatic level.
  • The West Virginia Department of Education shall develop and offer professional development opportunities to ensure educators are equipped with the requisite knowledge and skill to deliver computer science instruction as outlined in this section. The department may partner with high-quality computer science professional learning providers in developing and offering the professional development opportunities.

Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said the bill would improve on a bill the legislature approved a few years ago. That earlier bill came from a recommendation from the Southern Regional Education Board, he said.

State Deputy Supt. Clayton Burch told the committee that the Department of Education and the state school board have narrowed down the number of content standards for teachers to about a dozen with computer science as one of them. He said the bill would require the department to have a robust plan to address the needs of teachers from the kindergarten level through high school.

“This being the governor’s bill, I think it does put the emphasis on the need to have a very systematic approach to computer science and that it is worth supporting.” – Clayton Burch

Sen. John Unger, D-Unger, asked what the bill would add that the department can’t already do. Burch replied, “This being the governor’s bill, I think it does put the emphasis on the need to have a very systematic approach to computer science and that it is worth supporting.” He added that the department would like West Virginia to become a national leader in supporting computer science at all levels.

The bill now goes to the full Senate.

 

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.