Legislative News

Overview

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The Thrasher Group

McKinley Architects & Engineers

July 2, 2019 - Volume 39 Issue 11

By Jim Wallace

The road to education reform has taken a twisted course this year, so it was fitting that on the evening the West Virginia Senate finally approved an omnibus education bill that had passed the House of Delegates, the vote came only after the Senate floor session was interrupted by a tornado warning as a confirmed twister struck nearby.

By contrast, the bill became law quietly last Friday as Gov. Jim Justice signed House Bill 206 away from public view – unlike last October 2, when he held a news conference accompanied by several Republican legislators and others to promise a 5 percent pay raise for teachers for the second year in a row. His signing of the bill came after weeks of bitter exchanges between him and some of those same Republican legislators.

“Looking at the bill in its entirety – with all of its many, many great pieces that help our children and our teachers – there is truly so much good that will benefit teachers, students, and all West Virginians.” – Gov. Jim Justice

“Looking at the bill in its entirety – with all of its many, many great pieces that help our children and our teachers – there is truly so much good that will benefit teachers, students, and all West Virginians,” Justice said in a statement his office released late Friday. “I am really pleased with where we got to at the end of the day and I commend the Senate and the House for working with me to come to a compromise that will result in a big win for the entire education community and all West Virginians.”

After Justice signed House Bill 206 into law, one of those Republican leaders he had been feuding with, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, issued a statement thanking him.

“I believe that West Virginia’s children, teachers, and families are as gifted and talented as any in the world,” Carmichael said. “These changes will help provide the world-class education our students deserve, and it will give our teachers and counties the local control they want and need. I am excited to see what the future holds for our great state and our schools.”

The governor reportedly had considered a series of appearances around the state on Monday to hold ceremonial bill signings, but they were cancelled before being announced after opponents of the bill starting making plans to show up and protest, as teachers and other school workers did throughout the special session on education reform. Leaders of both the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia had urged the governor to veto House Bill 206.

However, even with the governor’s signature, House Bill 206 cannot be assured of a smooth path ahead. Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said it likely could be challenged in court for several reasons. “I believe the majority party is under a misapprehension that, when this bill is challenged in court, that the newly elected and appointed members of the Supreme Court will see favorably the constitutional fragrance of this bill,” he said.

After that, in a reference to next year’s election, Woelfel said, “I have an update on the tornado. If this bill passes, the tornado is expected to arrive November 3, 2020.”

WVEA President Dale Lee said his organization is considering both legal action and electoral action. “We want to make sure we elect people who are going to listen to West Virginians to the House and Senate, not the outside interest groups,” he said.

A frequently cited argument for why House Bill 206 might be vulnerable legally is the charge that it violates the state constitutional provision that each bill must have just one object.

"I challenge any reasonable person to conclude this bill deals with a single object when it is more than 140 pages long, the title runs five pages long and the abstract is 10 pages long," Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, said in a news release. "One can conclude that House Bill 206 is simply Senate Bill 451 [the original omnibus education bill from the Senate] bundled up and packaged in a way to gain enough votes to pass the House in an attempt to get something the Senate would accept and the governor could sign.”

However, Carmichael expressed confidence that House Bill 206 is a “completely legal mechanism” and said he had little concern about possible election consequences. “If doing the right thing gets one unelected, then so be it,” he said.

Some prepare for effects of new law.

Despite such maneuvering to derail the bill, some people are getting ready for its implementation. That includes the West Virginia School Board Association, even though Executive Director Howard O’Cull said House Bill 206 has a number of shortcomings.

“Let’s give this legislation a chance. Our organization will be developing model policies for local boards in implementing House Bill 206 provisions. Our process will include means for public input.” – Howard O’Cull

“House Bill 206 is akin to the student who has so much potential but whose parents fear that very potential, holding back his or her development because the known and comfortable will be disturbed,” he said. “Let’s give this legislation a chance. Our organization will be developing model policies for local boards in implementing House Bill 206 provisions. Our process will include means for public input.”

The legislation could have a big effect on county school boards because it puts some big decisions in their hands, such as whether to authorize charter schools. Although there were other mechanisms for authorizing charter schools in earlier education reform bills, House Bill 206 puts the decision entirely in control of local school boards, which could affect school board elections. O’Cull said it is possible that the charter school issue could become the main reason for certain candidates to run for school board positions, just as in the wake of much school consolidation in the 1990s, many people ran for school boards on anti-consolidation platforms.

O’Cull added, “The mid-1990s school consolidation backlash seizing many school systems are not parallel to charter schools, of course. No matter, county board members are elected largely on their being known in communities, community service, ties to the county education system, name recognition. Whether the specter of “gray moneys,’ which influence elections, ‘single-shot’ chartering folks have a lock on county board seats or ‘anti-chartering’ folks is an unknown. In working with county boards for over four decades, the public is the judge, admittedly prompted by interest groups support of candidates. We shall see.”

Beyond the charter schools issue, the bill also changes the decisions school board members will face in other ways. For example, the bill would provide funding to school districts through block grants, which O’Cull finds “problematic because the state’s school funding formula provides limited spending discretion.” Nevertheless, county school boards could use that provision to determine where public education dollars will go, he said, which is “certainly a vital step for defining efficiencies.”

However, shortly before the Senate passed the bill, Sen. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan, drew on his experience from three terms as a member of the Logan County Board of Education to express misgivings about providing some school board members too much discretion. He said he got involved on his local school board after the board abused its powers and lost local control to the state school board.

“They didn’t have enough sense to run their own affairs, and they wasted the taxpayers’ money, and they had pom-poms in their hands instead of the school law book,” Hardesty said. “They did things that were wrong, and the state had to come in and take them over.”

“Younger board members are not as apt to make tough, financially sound decisions in board meetings because they’re not always popular with the public.” – Sen. Paul Hardesty

School board members come in two categories based on age, he said. “Younger board members are not as apt to make tough, financially sound decisions in board meetings because they’re not always popular with the public,” he said. “I’ve heard the word ‘permissive’ until I’m sick of it. Permissive and a young, inexperienced board member are a recipe for disaster.”

In that regard, O’Cull said, “Many county school boards must transcend petty, provincial politics, which often results in fiscal negligence, apathy toward student achievement and lackluster educational outputs.” He added, “Researchers note state level public education reforms are most successful if local officials are given leeway to implement reforms meeting broad aims determined by state policymakers. Unfortunately, most state-inspired education reform proposals readied for local implementation are accompanied by weighty guidelines, rules, regulations.”

For school districts interested in making changes short of authorizing charter schools, House 206 would allow them to implement Innovation Zones with fewer restrictions than in the past. It is designed to put more decision-making about Innovation Zones under the authority of county school boards rather than the state school board, although some people have questioned how local school boards could waive state policies and regulations the way the state board can.

Another change provided in House Bill 206 is that, when a student who resides in one county wants to attend school in a neighboring county, only the school board in the county receiving the student would need to approve the transfer. The county where the student resides no longer could block the transfer.

However, school districts with enrollments of fewer than 1,400 students will receive better funding from the School Aid Formula than they otherwise would have received.

Although many provisions are crammed into this one piece of legislation, O’Cull has lamented that it seems to do nothing to address one big issue facing West Virginia’s public schools: a decline in desire among educators to become countywide school administrators.

“The position demands so much in terms of commitment, time and expectation from multiple policy players,” he said. “The entire leadership dynamic is complex. Moreover, one can’t force ‘fire in the belly,’ which is necessary for effective school district leadership.”

O’Cull said public school leadership should be addressed through a multi-pronged approach.

“Leadership development cannot become the purview of state education officials or closed administrator groups,” he said. “Professional educators should be encouraged and rewarded to assume school leadership roles, which, given the depth of their experiences, will refresh the ranks of school administrators.”

Senate passage followed a familiar pattern.

As noted earlier, the West Virginia Legislature took a twisted path to passing an omnibus education reform bill with approval from slim, all-Republican majorities in both chambers and the final action occurring on a stormy evening in Charleston. If it weren’t for the tornado warning that caused senators, staff members and observers to evacuate the Senate chamber temporarily that evening, the Senate’s passage of House Bill 206 would have been uneventful. In the end, as expected, the Senate approved the bill on a vote of 18 to 16 with Sens. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, and Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, joining all 14 Democrats in voting against it and the rest of the Republicans voting for it.

In the end, Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, called the passage of House Bill 206 “an inflection point for education” in West Virginia.

“Ultimately, this is a bill for the betterment of education.” – Sen. Patricia Rucker

“Ultimately, this is a bill for the betterment of education,” she said. “Change is difficult, and as the expression goes, no pain no gain. I look forward with great expectation to the future.”

But Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said it was not relevant reform. “This is smoke and mirrors,” he said.

The journey to passage of House Bill 206 began last January, when Senate Republican leaders brought out Senate Bill 451, the first omnibus education bill. It included many popular provisions, including pay raises for teachers, wraparound services for students suffering from problems of poverty and the drug epidemic, and more funding for county school boards. But it quickly ran into opposition because of provisions for charter schools, education savings accounts and ways to punish teachers for strikes. The House of Delegates killed that bill in the face of a two-day strike by teachers and other school workers, and the 60-day, regular legislative session ended in a stalemate on education reform.

During the special session called by the governor for “education betterment,” the Senate returned early in June with Senate Bill 1039, a new omnibus bill that was similar to Senate Bill 451. It still had provisions for charter schools and to make strikes costlier for teachers and school service workers, but the Senate spun the education savings accounts off into a separate bill, Senate Bill 1040.

When the House returned to work in the special session later in June, it brought out House Bill 206, its own omnibus education bill, with a weakened provision for charter schools and no provision for punishing educators for striking. The House did not approve education savings accounts but came up with House Bill 168, which would provide companies with tax credits for donating money to nonprofit “scholarship-granting organizations.” Those companies then could use the money to subsidize parents who send their children to private schools. However, the House stopped short of passing that bill.

Although Senate Republicans were unable to get everything they originally sought in Senate Bill 451, Rucker told her colleagues that House Bill 206 contains the essential goals of greater local control, choices and empowerment for parents, students, teachers and county school boards. Most of her fellow Republicans seemed to agree.

“We have made a massive investment in our traditional public education system, as well as we’ve provided choice and flexibility for our parents, teachers and students. This is a moment that we will mark as a turning point in the education delivery mechanism in our state.” – Senate President Mitch Carmichael

“This is a historic day for the state of West Virginia,” Carmichael told reporters after the passage of House Bill 206. “We have made a massive investment in our traditional public education system, as well as we’ve provided choice and flexibility for our parents, teachers and students. This is a moment that we will mark as a turning point in the education delivery mechanism in our state. For too many years, we’ve been held in near last place in student performance. There is no defense of the status quo. No one can defend the status quo. And we’ve made changes in the face of criticism, in the face of vitriolic protest.”

Senate rejected a series of changes.

The final vote came after the majority of Senate Republicans turned away several amendments that came mostly from Democrats – mostly on 16 to 18 votes or voice votes. One would have removed the section that would authorize up to three charter schools during each three-year period. Democrats argued that most West Virginians don’t want charter schools. Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said some of the more than 40 states with charter schools are reversing course after being disappointed with those schools. “They’ve seen too much money stolen and too much money wasted,” he said.

“Let’s fully fund education first. Let’s fully fund public education. Charter schools will do nothing to help public education.” – Sen. Mike Romano

At least the charter schools allowed under House Bill 206 could be authorized only by county boards of education, Romano said, noting that is different from what some national pro-charter schools advocates have sought. “Why pass something that ain’t going to satisfy the people on the outside you were trying to satisfy evidently and they’re certainly not going to satisfy the 75 to 88 percent of West Virginians that are against them?” he asked. “And I don’t think there’s a teacher in West Virginia that wants them passed. Let’s fully fund education first. Let’s fully fund public education. Charter schools will do nothing to help public education.”

Arguing against that amendment, Rucker pointed out that only nonprofit organizations could apply for charters and education service providers would have to turn in transparent budgets. She added that charter schools could contract with county school boards for services, such as transportation.

“I believe in giving the counties a choice,” Rucker said. “I believe in strengthening their ability to do more. And I believe in relaxing some of those restrictions we have put on them.”

Other amendments the Senate rejected would have:

  • Tied charter schools to underachieving schools, identified as Title I schools.
  • Defined intervention and fixed a problem with the bill’s reference to a section of code that does not exist.
  • Expanded incentives for attendance to include not just teachers but also all fulltime employees in a school district.
  • Increased membership of local school improvement councils to include mental health professionals.

Another rejected amendment would have restored language about student support personnel to the way it was in earlier Senate bills. Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, objected to how the House had changed the language.

“What I’m afraid has happened here is we have changed the definition of student support personnel, and that’s going to jeopardize the wraparound services that we all agree need to be increased,” he said. “Specifically, what’s changed is the social workers aren’t named anymore. Psychologists are named, but they’re named under a different classification of employee, not student support personnel. And attendance directors are listed in two categories of employees. So I’m just afraid this is causing a lot of confusion, and I don’t want that to happen when we all agree we need these additional wraparound services.”

Rucker argued the language in the bill is still broad enough to include all those types of workers.

Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, advocated for another amendment to require the charter school issue to be put on the ballot in any county where a charter school is proposed. “It cannot be in a special election,” he said. “It’s got to be in a primary or general [election].”

School boards can’t increase levies without having county residents vote, Hamilton said, so the authorization of charter schools also should be decided by votes of the people.

O’Cull later said that amendment was unnecessary. “County board decisions about charter schools will be tempered by voters,” he said. “If one seeks county board office, he or she will be compelled to explain their charter position.”

Opinions on the bill remained divided.

“To say that this bill is a heavy lift is a very gross understatement.” – Sen. Tom Takubo

After all the proposed amendments were out of the way, Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, said, “To say that this bill is a heavy lift is a very gross understatement.”

West Virginians have a bad tendency of letting the rest of the nation get ahead of them, he said. “This is in no way by any means going to fix all things, but I hope it’s a first good step,” Takubo said.

On the other side, Hardesty objected to how the Senate formed a Committee of the Whole to get one of its omnibus bills passed when it seemed unlikely it would get through the regular committee system. He also complained about the way the House split into four select committees – “the committee of the quad,” as he put it – to pass House Bill 206 when it seemed unlikely it could get through the House Education Committee because of that committee’s membership. He credited the leaders of both chambers for their skill in using legislative rules to their advantage to get narrow majorities to pass the final bill.

“Is it worth the exercise?” Hardesty asked. “Is it worth the capital that we have spent with the taxpayers of West Virginia as a whole by going through this ridiculous exercise for five months?” He noted that House Bill 206 was similar to a bill the House sent over that the Senate during the regular session that the Senate would not even take up.

In particular, Hardesty warned, as he had done before, against the “catastrophic mistake” of including a provision in the bill that would allow school employees to take four personal days of leave at their will and pleasure. If they would take no more than four days, they could qualify for a $500 bonus designed to encourage attendance, but he said it wouldn’t work as planned.

“The principal can sign off to three people per school [for] four days anytime they want to use them for any reason,” Hardesty said. “Couple that with a holiday, you give them off a whole week during the 180-day instruction cycle.”

Curbing absenteeism would require establishing some sort of parity between those who were hired prior to a change in law in 2015 and those hired after the change, he said. The older employees can earn retirement or health care credits for saving their leave days, but the newer employees can’t do that, he said, so those hired before the change will save their days and collect the $500 bonus, while the newer employees won’t have enough incentive to do that. About one in four employees in the public education system is in the second system and the percentage of them grows each year, he said.

“Thus, our substitute costs soar, and it’s going to keep going higher and [it’s] getting harder to get people to come in and do work,” Hardesty said.

As the vote on the bill neared, Prezioso, leader of Senate Democrats, made the final arguments against it.

“We have years and years of historical evidence that proves it’s going to be very difficult for charter schools to work in West Virginia,” he said. “Thank goodness this charter school legislation is probably the weakest in the country. I’ll be surprised if there are any charter schools that come to fruition, and it’s not going to change the needle one iota. One charter school in West Virginia is not going to change the needle. What’s going to change the needle are the wraparound services that we provide these educators with the means to do their job.”

“We wasted six months of our time actually debating charter schools. We should be talking about this drug problem.” – Sen. Roman Prezioso

Prezioso said addressing the drug problems affecting much of West Virginia would do more than charter schools to improve the performance of public school students. “We wasted six months of our time actually debating charter schools,” he said. “We should be talking about this drug problem.”

After the Senate passed House Bill 206, Gov. Justice sent out a message on Twitter approving of it. “This is the correct resolution that aids our teachers, students, and all those in the education community and I look forward to signing it,” he said.

House holds marathon day to finish its work.

When the House of Delegates approved House Bill 206, it came at the end of a very long day, June 19, which began with a public hearing at eight o’clock in the morning. It continued with a floor session that began about 11 o’clock in the morning and did not end until after 11 o’clock in the evening. As the bill was amended that day, it would allow just three charter schools to be established in the state up until July 1, 2023. But that cap would be just temporary. The bill would allow three more charter schools to be established during each three-year period after that.

The Senate had wanted to permit an unlimited number of charter schools. House Bill 206, as it was introduced, would have capped the number at 10.

Unlike previous bills to permit charter schools, House Bill 206 would allow them only when authorized by county school boards. In fact, when the bill was still in its committee of origin, House Majority Leader Summers, R-Taylor, made sure of that.

“When I met with my county board of education, they are not interested in public charter schools. So the bill sets out that, if my county doesn’t want it, they don’t approve one.” – Delegate Amy Summers

“I just want to clarify,” she said. “When I met with my county board of education, they are not interested in public charter schools. So the bill sets out that, if my county doesn’t want it, they don’t approve one, correct? And there’s no way around that.”

“Correct,” Dave Mohr, senior policy analyst for the House Education Committee, told her. “This does not have an appeal process in it at all, so if a county board rejects it, it’s rejected.”

The House vote to approve the bill was 51 to 47 with several Republicans joining Democrats in opposing it. The Senate also had narrow margins in passing its omnibus education bills, typically with 18 of the Senate Republicans voting in favor and two Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.

As the House wrapped up several hours of debate on House Bill 206, House Minority Whip and acting Education Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Berkeley, emphasized the provisions other than the one for charter schools as reasons for delegates to approve it.

“In sum, this legislation represents more than $148 million of additional investment in traditional public education, along with a very modest amount of education choice for our parents, students and communities across the state,” he said. “Despite assertions to the contrary, I don’t believe that’s an either-or proposition. I think we can and should do both.”

Espinosa said the additional investment in public education includes almost $68 million for pay raises for teachers and school service personnel, $2.3 million for salary increases for math teachers, $24.3 million for student support staff (479 new employees), $5.3 million to help school districts with enrollment of fewer than 1,400 students, almost $18 million for increased local share money for districts, $5.5 million for special education teachers (a three-step salary increase), $5.9 million for teacher and librarian supplies, and more than $2 million for an employee attendance incentive.

Delegate Terry Waxman, R-Harrison, decried all the attention the section on charter schools had received. “This bill contains a lot of really good and necessary improvements to education,” she said. “But we’ve also heard a lot of angst expressed about the mere permission to establish a charter school.”

“There’s a lot of fear that that power that’s in Charleston is going to be slipping away, and it’s going to go down to those local school boards.” – Delegate Tom Bibby

Delegate Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley, said he supported the bill because it would decentralize the most centralized public education system in the United States. “This centralized control is killing us,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear that that power that’s in Charleston is going to be slipping away, and it’s going to go down to those local school boards.”

Delegate Marshall Wilson, R-Berkeley, framed the bill as a matter of freedom and liberty. “I ask you for just a little liberty,” he said in urging support for the bill.

But speaking in opposition to the bill, Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, took issue with Wilson’s statement. “This legislation is being pushed under the guise of choice and freedom,” he said. “Choice – well, I’m here to tell you we already have choice. We have great private schools. We have great public schools. We have home schools and virtual schools. We have Innovation Zones. We’re getting magnet schools.”

Hornbuckle added, “We don’t need education reform. We need education transformation.”

House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, gave several reasons for opposing the bill, including that charter schools would hurt nearby established public schools. “In the absence of that condition that they be put in low-performing areas, that tells me they are likely going to…pull the cream of the crop from the counties in which they may be established,” he said.

“I’m really concerned about the long-term damage we are doing to our educational system and the discouragement we are creating for people who are considering going into the teaching field and quite frankly to the rest of the country who might want to consider coming and bringing their families to West Virginia to live, work and raise a family,” Miley said.

House waded through many amendments.

The long debate over the House Bill 206 came only after the House spent hours considering two dozen amendments to the bill. Some were adopted and some were rejected.

One of those adopted amendments was proposed by Espinosa to change the number of charter schools that would be authorized. Instead of the bill’s original cap of 10 charter schools, the amendment would limit the number to three until 2023 and then allow three more in each of the following three-year periods.

“It does allow for us to potentially authorize a handful of public charter schools and then to continually assess that as we go forward,” Espinosa said. But Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, called it just “an amendment to assuage the governor.” He predicted it would lead eventually to an unlimited number of charter schools.

“I just can’t bring myself to believe this is the right idea for West Virginia.” – Delegate Mark Dean

House Education Vice-Chairman Mark Dean, R-Mingo, tried unsuccessfully three times to amend the bill to change the charter schools section. As principal of a school in Gilbert with students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, he said, “I just can’t bring myself to believe this is the right idea for West Virginia.”

One of Dean’s amendments would have required a referendum of county voters if the local school board would approve a charter school. Another would have prevented a county school board from authorizing a charter school until after all board members go through regularly scheduled elections. His final amendment, which resulted in an extensive debate among delegates, would have taken all provisions for charter schools out of the bill. The House rejected it with 45 delegates voting in favor and 52 voting against it.

Espinosa, who led the opposition to that amendment, said its approval likely would dash hopes of seeing House Bill 206 become law. “If we adopt this amendment before us, I think we can almost assure we will not reach agreement with the Senate,” he said.

However, Dean was successful in getting approval for another amendment to add another $6 million in funding for student support personnel, such as counsellors, psychologists and social workers. The House approved that amendment on a vote of 49 to 48.

In addition, Dean was part of a mixed group of Republicans and Democrats – which also included Delegates Erikka Storch, R-Ohio; Cody Thompson, D-Randolph; and Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall – that succeeded in changing a provision that would have downplayed the role of seniority in school boards’ decisions on employee layoffs and transfers.

Another approved amendment proposed by Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire, removed a provision that would have allowed the state school board to convert the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind in Romney into a charter school. She said the provision was based on the false premise that the facility would become eligible for federal funds.

Most denounce bill at public hearing.

Long before delegates got to proposed amendments to the bill and the debate that led to its passage, the House began that day with a public hearing that began early in the morning. The vast majority of the people who participated opposed House Bill 206. Of the 82 people who spoke, 74 of them opposed the bill, six supported it and two, including a representative of the West Virginia School Board Association, were neither clearly in favor of it nor against it.

Delegate Marshall Wilson, R-Berkeley, presided over the hearing and gave each person only 60 seconds to speak, keeping the hearing to a little more than 90 minutes. When speakers went beyond the time limit, the microphone was cut off, often in mid-sentence.

The opponents of the bill included many teachers, as well as one county superintendent, one member of the state school board, representatives of unions for teachers and other school workers, and others. Many of them objected to the provision to establish charter schools and accused legislative leaders of ignoring the will of the majority of West Virginians. Some made reference to the series of public forums on education reform held by the Department of Education at which 88 percent of participants said they opposed charter schools.

“My question to anyone who would vote for this legislation is: Who are you listening to? Because you’re not listening to us.” – Nicole McCormick

“My question to anyone who would vote for this legislation is: Who are you listening to? Because you’re not listening to us,” Nicole McCormick, a music teacher and president of the Mercer County Education Association, said. “You’re not listening to the majority of West Virginians that took the time to go to these forums.”

McCormick said educators make amazing things happen with children in desperate situations. She said they go to funerals of parents who have overdosed, buy book bags for students and contribute to fundraisers. “We are the experts,” she said. “We are the ones that live this life every day. You never stop being an educator.”

Julie Samples, a Putnam County second grade teacher, said, “Charter schools will not fix the problems in our public schools. Listen to the people that work with West Virginia kids and do something to help all West Virginia kids. This bill would not do that. If you can hear my voice, please vote no on the omnibus bill.”

Crystal Adkins, a special education teacher in Marion County, said she was advocating for her students and opposed charter schools. “What we need is wraparound services,” she said. “We don’t need to defund public education; we need to fund public education. Give us the services our students need.”

Tonya Stuart Reinhart, a teacher from Harrison County, put masking tape over her mouth and let most of her 60 seconds elapse silently. The tape said, “88%,” which presumably stood for the percentage of West Virginians opposed to charter schools.

Bryan Daugherty, a Ritchie County High School teacher who attended five of the education reform forums, said teachers have to bring their A game every day of the year because they don’t get to go into special sessions the way legislators do. “If they bring their C game, that’s not good enough,” he said about teachers. “They don’t get an extra session to bring their A game. They got to bring it 180 days a year.”

Daugherty said the legislature should fund more counselors and nurses for public schools.

“I want to fix our schools for our kids, all kids in all schools in all counties,” he said.

In addition to teachers, a recent graduate of Capitol High School in Charleston testified.

Jasper Ball said legislators’ great perseverance in including “unpopular, unlawful and unsuccessful elements” was the only reason they were considering the third omnibus education bill of the year.

“We face a teacher shortage, and I present a very simple solution: Increase the pay,” he said. “Make the career a viable option for somebody like me who’s going to college and is trying to decide their major.”

Deborah Akers, superintendent of the Mercer County schools, cited a Stanford University study that found that the overall performance of charter schools was about the same as that of public schools. “These results do not give us a clear indication that charter schools are the answer to higher achievement,” she said.

“It is counterintuitive to me that legislative proposals continue to imagine ways to erode our public schools by diverting public funds to support private options for a few.” – Debra Sullivan

State school board member Debra Sullivan, who is a former principal of Charleston Catholic High School, said, “It is counterintuitive to me that legislative proposals continue to imagine ways to erode our public schools by diverting public funds to support private options for a few. While families have every right to opt out of the public school system, they should not receive public funds to do so. These funds must be reserved for public purposes with accountability, oversight and transparency. Private school tuition tax credits, educational savings accounts and tax credits for businesses funding private school scholarships all undermine public education. West Virginia faces multiple challenges, but research and common sense tell us that the best way to increase student achievement is by raising families out of poverty.”

Joe White of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association said, “My heart is hurting that the voice of West Virginia has 60 seconds to speak.” He added a comment that seemed to refer to the strikes held by teachers and school service workers last year and this year. “I work for the people of West Virginia,” he said. “I work for 8,193 members, and here’s what they’re saying: What you’ve witnessed since 2018 is just the wind. You don’t want to be here for the storm.”

When the crowd reacted, Delegate Wilson said, “Keep order or I will shut down this hearing.”

Likewise, Dale Lee of the West Virginia Education Association also received a rebuke from Wilson. Lee said, “I want to thank the galleries and the people who came out here. These are the true experts on public education in West Virginia who have demanded not once, not twice, but three times now that their voices be heard.” He encouraged legislators to look into educators’ eyes before voting on House Bill 206.

When Lee said, “Thank you for all of you for coming,” Wilson said, “Please keep your comments to the bill.”

“I can’t thank people?” Lee asked as he walked away from the lectern.

Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, asked, “Why are we here? Are you really listening? Come on: 60 seconds?” he said, adding that legislators owe more than that to people who have spent many hours listening to legislative debates.

“Are you listening to the citizens of West Virginia or are you listening to the DeVos family, who ruined public education in Michigan?” Albert said, referring to the family of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. He said statistics show that after the DeVos family infused Michigan public schools with vouchers and charter schools, student achievement declined there.

“You say West Virginia is one of only four states that don’t have charter schools. I think we should wear that as a badge of honor.” – Fred Albert

“You say West Virginia is one of only four states that don’t have charter schools,” Albert said. “I think we should wear that as a badge of honor.”

Also speaking against the bill was Mickey Blackwell, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals. “Tomorrow is West Virginia Day,” he said. “Let’s make today West Virginia Students Day.”

Steve Wiseman, executive director of the West Virginia Developmental Disabilities Council, complained that the bill could result in segregation of students with developmental and other disabilities. “While well intended, the advent of charter schools, as envisioned in the bill, would likely result in those vulnerable students being marginalized and separated,” he said.

Betty Rivard, who described herself as a citizen advocate, said, “This bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” She added, “It is not in the best interests of kids in public schools. This used to be called the people’s house. We now need to call it the anti-people’s house. You need to raise salaries and increase wraparound services and go home.”

Some spoke in favor of the bill.

Among those who spoke in favor of House Bill 206 was Roy Raymond, a Cabell County resident from a military family who has served in the military for almost 30 years. “None of us served to serve an overbearing government or to allow that to happen,” he said. “We served to serve the people of this country and to allow unlimited freedom, as was guaranteed to us in the Constitution. Now, in that freedom, we should have unlimited choices, and we can’t have choices if we don’t have a choice to make.”

Raymond said he not only supported the bill but wanted it amended to remove the limit on the number of charter schools.

Also speaking in favor of the bill was Jessi Troyan of the conservative Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy. “The challenge facing improvement of our overall education is kind of like solving a Rubik’s Cube,” she said. “Each of the aspects are interrelated and dependent upon one another: teacher compensation, wraparound services, hard-to-fill positions, flexibility in the classrooms, empowering students, families and educators to find the environment that best fits their needs, and empowering local control throughout the state.”

House Bill 206 looks at the whole Rubik’s Cube and attempts to solve the whole thing together, Troyan said.

“House Bill 206 appears more palatable than predecessor Senate bills.” – Mary Jo Thomas

When Mary Jo Thomas, president of the Marion County school board and chairwoman of the West Virginia School Board Association’s Executive Legislative Committee, took her minute, she focused mostly on parts of the bill the WVSBA liked, although she didn’t endorse all of it. “House Bill 206 appears more palatable than predecessor Senate bills,” she said. “It brings greater clarity to issues like charter schools, although this organization is opposed to charter schools in principle. This bill provides flexibility to county boards. It removes many negative aspects directed at school employees. It strengthens local school improvement councils. It provides wraparound services. It ensures the teachers’ recommendation is a primary consideration to determine student promotion. It makes changes to school Innovation Zones to enhance creativity. It greatly assists county boards having 1,400 or fewer students. We appreciate the county boards receive additional local share monies.”

In the end, Wilson concluded the public hearing by saying, “I’d like to thank each one of you for being here, for taking part in your democratically-formed, constitutional republic.”

House Bill 206 reached that point after emerging on June 17 from House Select Committee on Education Reform C, one of four committees set up by Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, just to consider education bills during the special session. Committee C’s chairman was Espinosa. The bill came out of that committee even though House leaders previously had said they planned to run a series of individual bills instead of a big omnibus education bill, as the Senate had done. In the end, the House did both by passing its omnibus bill, House Bill 206, as well seven other education reform bills, but the Senate set those other bills aside.

State school board hears complaints about special session bills.

During June’s meeting of the West Virginia Board of Education before the House of Delegates resumed work in the special session, representatives of educators denounced the bills the Senate passed earlier in the month.

Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, said legislators should consider reforms that would help all public school students rather than charter schools, which would take resources away from the public schools.

“Why do people want charters rather than investment in public schools?” – Randi Weingarten

“Why do people want charters rather than investment in public schools?” she asked. “There’s no panacea here. There’s no magic wand here. When you try to educate all kids, particularly the kids we see, particularly when half the kids in the United States of America are poor, particularly with all the mental health issues and the challenges that kids have, it’s not easy. It’s something we have to do.”

Weingarten said charter schools can be selective about the students they accept, while public schools must educate all the students who come to them. She said legislators instead should consider the types of reforms the AFT has been working to establish in McDowell County, such as setting up wraparound services that address students’ medical needs, including dental care and mental health counseling. That’s part of a “a real recipe for success,” she said.

“We need to strengthen outcomes and opportunities for the kids in West Virginia, Weingarten said. “We can do that together, working together, not having a bill that actually retaliates, stifles teachers’ voices and siphons off funding to organizational structure that is based on market instead of helping all kids.”

State school board members welcomed her comments.

“I want to jump up and say hurrah,” David Perry, board president, said.

Miller Hall, vice president, said, “What you said touched my heart.”

Another board member, Debra Sullivan, thanked Weingarten for being a voice from the outside who knows what’s going on in West Virginia and elsewhere. She said board members are listening and taking their responsibility seriously.

Dale Lee of the West Virginia Education Association told the board he was very tired. “What I’m tired about is all the attacks on public education,” he said. “I’m tired of people telling us how bad we are.”

Among those he criticized was the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which had been pushing for the Senate-passed legislation. Lee said such critics fail to recognize that West Virginia has one of the top-rated pre-school programs in the nation, ranks in the top five for graduation rates, and has career-technical education programs that are as good as any in the nation, although more are needed.

“We’re doing a heck of a job with educating students with the resources that the legislature’s provided.” – David Perry

“I concur with you 100 percent,” Perry said. “We’re doing a heck of a job with educating students with the resources that the legislature’s provided.”

David Gladkosky, executive director of the smaller West Virginia Professional Educators, said his organization’s members expressed many concerns about the special session on education. He said legislators could have reached consensus earlier if they had considered reform items in separate bills rather than the two omnibus bills the Senate passed.

“Most of our members don’t think the charter schools can meet the needs of West Virginia students, and our members are concerned with the out-pay of taxpayer money on the continuous debate on charter schools,” Gladkosky said. “Now there are places where we’ve seen the charter schools are successful, but we don’t think that the model that’s being introduced here in West Virginia is going to be as successful.”

The Public Employees Insurance Agency is faring better than expected, but agency officials and an actuary who works with PEIA are wary about whether it will continue to do so well. Changes in the public education system are behind some of those concerns.

Although revenues for PEIA are down, expenses are down even more, allowing the agency to do better than financial projections. But enrollment also has been declining, so the officials are watching to make sure they are not getting a higher percentage of less healthy and more costly people among the members who are left. That’s known as adverse selection.

Actuary Dave Bond said the per-member-per-month costs are running about 3 percent higher for one of PEIA’s plans (Plan A) and 2 percent higher for another (Plan B).“When you got reduced enrollment, you got a lower denominator to calculate your per-member-per-month [costs],” Jason Haught, PEIA’s chief financial officer, told members of the PEIA Finance Board. “Hopefully, those in the denominator are healthier, but that’s not always the case.”

To get a handle on what is happening, PEIA has been checking with the agencies whose employees it covers to find out if they intend to fill staff vacancies. Some of the state agencies have said they hope to fill vacancies, but the largest percentage of PEIA members are employees of county school boards, which receive School Aid Formula funding from the state based on enrollment, Haught said.

“Our student enrollment has dropped,” he said. “When student enrollment drops, we have less positions the boards are allowed to budget and fill. That largest group is directly related to our citizen population. We don’t seem to be getting any younger in this state, and there’s just not as many kids, and then therefore there’s not as many employees in the secondary schools.”

Although public school employees make up the biggest portion of PEIA members, Haught said, the agency also is seeing declines in enrollment from state agencies and state colleges and universities.

“Those two are not as clearly defined as to the costs, but I think indirectly it’s the same thing,” he said. “You got less citizens to serve, you got less people that need to serve them. You got less students in the state going to college possibly.”

Because lower enrollment in PEIA’s plans doesn’t necessarily mean lower costs, the agency is being careful about figuring out its annual base of enrollment.

“We’re rebasing it every year,” Haught said. “We’re not going to assume any increase. We’re not going to assume any decrease unless we see enough of a historic trend of an enrollment decrease to where we can apply a slight decrease each year to the enrollment. Right now, we’re just maintaining a flat assumption of enrollment.”

Bond said PEIA has seen enrollment declines for four to five years. He said he’s willing to change the actuarial assumptions his firm has been using, but he’s being cautious.

“We’re flexible,” Bond said. “We just need to make sure we’re incorporating all the possible changes.”

Haught said PEIA and its actuaries even have discussed a hybrid system in which they assume less revenue but keep expenses flat. Actual revenue is coming in lower than what the agency budgeted for the fiscal year that ended Sunday, he said.

Nevertheless, he said, they are watching to make sure that doesn’t flip. If it does, they want to be ready to address it, he said.“We’ve made $14.3 million less than what we budgeted, but our total expenses are $45.5 million less than what we budgeted,” Haught said. “So we’re staying in the black on the effects of the decrease in enrollment.”

In the first 10 months of the fiscal year, PEIA had total assets of $321 million and total liabilities of $88 million for a total net position of $241 million, he said.

Bond said he had expected PEIA to see a $40 million deficit in the fiscal year that began Monday, but it looks as though it will be only $16 million.

The Retiree Health Benefit Trust also is in good shape. “The trust continues to do very well,” Haught said. “Right now, we got total assets of $1.077 billion and total liabilities of $21 million, so we’ve got a total reserve for pension fund benefits of $1.056 billion.”

The trust’s returns on investments have been “feast or famine” this year, he said. It has rallied from a big loss in the first quarter of the year, he said, so that investment income is running short of the original financial plan by only $6.7 million. Haught called investment income “gravy,” because it provides more money for paying retiree health benefits.

PEIA Director Ted Cheatham said the agency intends to move up the salary tiers on which premium costs are based by $2,700 to reflect the 5 percent pay raises teachers and other school workers are scheduled to receive if the legislature’s education reform bill, House Bill 206, would become law. The agency did the same thing last year, when education employees also received 5 percent raises.

In addition, he noted that the bill has a provision to allow charter schools to opt in for PEIA coverage as non-state agencies, but that should have no effect on PEIA.

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.