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February 19, 2015 - Volume 35 Issue 12

 

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

 

 

By Jim Wallace

Legislation to permit the establishment of public charter schools in West Virginia – Senate Bill 14 – is on its way to the Senate Finance Committee. It got through the Senate Education Committee this week on a seven-to-five vote that split along party lines after being on the committee’s agenda for three weeks and occupying many hours of the committee’s time. In an effort to get the bill moving, the Republican majority held five meetings that stretched over five and a half hours on Monday and Tuesday alone to get the bill ready for the committee’s vote.

“This is a major change in West Virginia.” – Sen. Mike Romano

Democrats protested efforts by Chairman Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, and Vice Chairwoman Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, to get the bill out of the Education Committee Tuesday evening. In particular, Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said he felt “shortchanged” by not having the opportunity to consider the bill further and offer more amendments to it. “This is a major change in West Virginia,” he said.

But Boley said, “I just think that we need to finish this up. There’s other things on the education agenda besides charter schools.” She suggested that Romano could offer more amendments to the bill when the Senate Finance Committee takes it up, although Romano is not a member of that committee.

The bill went through several versions, each one incorporating changes the committee voted to approve. The minority Democrats were able to shape the bill by getting some amendments approved, but other amendments for which they argued, failed to get enough support.

For example, Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, proposed an amendment that would have required more than just 60 percent of teachers at an existing public non-charter school to vote to convert it to a public charter school. He wanted to mirror language in legislation that established Innovation Zones by requiring at least 60 percent of all workers – not just teachers – at the school to vote on the proposed conversion and for at least two-thirds of them to vote in favor of it for the change to proceed. Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, supported Beach’s proposal.

“If you’re voting to convert a non-charter public school into a public charter school you should have the buy-in.” – Dale Lee

“If you’re voting to convert a non-charter public school into a public charter school you should have the buy-in,” Lee said. “And while the 60 percent language is in there right now, it doesn’t require any percentage of the teachers to have voted, so you could have three people vote and get two of the people to say yes. That’s not an accurate representation of the school. That’s why Innovation Zones mandated that at least 60 percent of the people had to vote in a secret ballot with two-thirds of those voting in the affirmative.”

But Beach’s proposed amendment died on a five-five tie vote. He was more successful with a second amendment to eliminate language in the bill that would have permitted charter schools to have multiple campuses.

Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne – who was chairman of the Senate Education Committee for several years before Republicans took control of the Senate – said he had looked at charter schools in many states but had not seen one with multiple campuses. But Lisa Grover of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said Minnesota, Colorado and Arizona have charter schools with multiple campuses. She said that, if a public charter school would prove to have a popular academic program, it should be allowed to offer that program at a branch campus. Then she added, “Let me frame it this way: I think it depends on how quickly you want to scale up good quality schools for kids.”

But Plymale argued, “If I really would like to have a charter school in West Virginia, I think it would be better to start out at a smaller scale, and looking at multiple campuses would hinder the fact of what you would try to do.”

The bill already had a limit of 10 charter schools over five years with only two per year, which Grover called “a stringent cap” that would allow for very little room for growth.

But then Romano noticed that language in the bill seemed to indicate that, once a charter school was authorized, it apparently would not have to apply again to set up more than one campus. Committee counsel Hank Hagar agreed with that interpretation of the bill’s language, which led Romano to say he would support the amendment to change it.

“There are so many questions with this bill,” Romano said. “I don’t think we want to give carte blanche to a charter school to open multiple campuses without us getting a look at it. Maybe it’s something we do down the road.”

Beach noted that West Virginia’s community colleges each started with one location and branched out only when the legislature permitted it.

When Sypolt said he didn’t particularly oppose the amendment, the committee approved it.

 

Method of selecting charter school students is contentious.

Another issue that committee members spent much time on was how a lottery would work to choose which students would get to attend a charter school that did not have room for everyone. Grover said registration for a charter school would be the same as for any other school. If more students would want to attend a charter school than there are spaces, a blind lottery would be held, she said.

But Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said research shows two factors lead to success in schools. The first is a highly qualified, certified teacher who is motivated and inspired, he said, and charter schools allow more of that to happen because they pay teachers more and get out of their way in not telling them how to teach. Another factors is self-selection, he said, because parents who are highly motivated and engaged with their children are more likely to apply for them to attend a charter school. In public schools, many parents won’t come to teacher conferences, he said, and many students come in depressed because of a lack of family structure.

“You’re not only taking the best teachers out of the traditional public school and bringing them to the charter school, but you’re also taking the motivated parents out of the traditional public school into the charter school, and then you have a wasteland that’s created over here.” – Sen. John Unger

“You’re not only taking the best teachers out of the traditional public school and bringing them to the charter school, but you’re also taking the motivated parents out of the traditional public school into the charter school, and then you have a wasteland that’s created over here,” Unger said. A charter school should have to take students regardless of parents’ interest, he said, so parents should opt out of having their children considered for a charter school rather than have to opt in.

Grover pointed out that Senate Bill 14 already had several features designed to attract diverse student populations. She said it had a provision that said authorizers shall give preference to charter schools that seek to serve more disenfranchised students.

Romano commended Unger for calling attention to an unfair aspect of the bill. He then proposed an amendment that would require parents to opt out of a lottery if they didn’t want their children to be considered for a charter school rather than requiring parents to opt in if they did want their children considered for the charter school.

“That will make it fair because it removes from the equation the absentee parent,” Romano said. The difference between a high-achieving high school in Harrison County, where he lives, and a low-achieving high school there is more parental involvement with the students at the high-achieving school, he said.

“I just don’t see the sky-is-falling scenario here. That’s my view. I think the bill’s fine the way it is.” – Sen. Mike Hall

But Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, questioned whether the amendment was necessary. “I just don’t see the sky-is-falling scenario here,” he said. “That’s my view. I think the bill’s fine the way it is.” He suggested that one place where a charter school might be needed most is Charleston’s troubled West Side, where many parents don’t get involved in their children’s education.

Unger suggested that Hall’s argument actually made a good case to support Romano’s amendment. “If the parent is absent, who’s going to make the application on behalf of that child?” Unger asked. “Now, I think this is a fundamental issue.”

Instead of authorizing charter schools, he said, West Virginia should study what characteristics make certain charter schools successful and apply them to public schools. He said he was afraid of the economic effects of self-selection in which charter schools would take the best teachers and children with involved parents.

“What happens to those children that are there that don’t have parents that care?” Unger asked. “I would have been one of those children that my parents wouldn’t have applied. I’m going to tell you right now they would not have applied. I could have taken it home and begged them, ‘Please, why don’t you apply me into this charter school? I want to stay with my friends.’ And my parents – they would have just put it off to the side or not paid any attention to it.”

Romano said Unger had identified a flaw in the bill. “I get emotional about this because I think the basis of our country is a good public school education,” Romano said.

In the end, all 12 committee members present voted to approve his amendment to requiring opting-out rather than opting-in for charter schools.

 

Fringe group takeover is another worry.

Another concern that Unger expressed was that some fringe group could get enough of its supporters to move into a small county that they could take control of the local school board and get it to authorize a charter school that the group would set up. He noted that William Luther Pierce, founder of the white supremacist group, the National Alliance, set up a compound in Pocahontas County a few decades ago and attracted many followers.

Grover said the decision to authorize a charter school would be up to the county school board. She said she couldn’t guarantee that a fringe group would be prevented from establishing a charter school, but she said, “We’ve tried to build enough accountability into this bill that the chances of that happening are minimized.”

Yet Unger said he would like to find a way to put “an emergency ripcord” in the bill to protect against such a possibility. Hall noted that Pierce’s group never got control of a county office and expressed confidence that such a group could be stopped from getting supporters in three of a county’s school board positions.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” Unger said. “But there’s a real possibility it could.”

Plymale suggested the appeal process for charter schools could be strengthened. Romano suggested the bill could be amended to exclude political bias just as it already excluded having a charter school with a religious affiliation. But no one was able to suggest an amendment that would address Unger’s concern.

Instead, Romano tried one more time to amend the bill in another manner. “I know this is something the majority wants to do, but I think we all agree that there are a lot of questions without answers,” he said. “Under the current verbiage of the bill, we’re going to have eight or 10 charter schools by the time we get to evaluate the first two that are established. This amendment would allow the establishment of two charter schools and then authorize no more for four years.”

If no serious problems were found with the first two charter schools by that time, Romano said, his amendment would allow more to be authorized. But Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, opposed it. “We’ve already made a lot of concessions to say that we’re going to limit it to two a year in the whole state of West Virginia,” Carmichael said.

Four senators voted in favor of Romano’s amendment while eight voted against it.

With the subsequent seven-to-five vote to approve the new version of Senate Bill 14, the Senate Education Committee got it off of its agenda and send it on to the Senate Finance Committee.

 

Senate approves immunization bill.

Another education-related bill that underwent significant change since it was introduced received approval by the full Senate Wednesday on a 34-to-zero vote. Senate Bill 286 would establish a new procedure for granting medical exemptions to mandatory immunizations for school children. Such exemptions would be determined by the state Bureau for Public Health rather than by local health departments. The bill also would establish an appeal procedure.

The original version of the bill would have permitted religious exemptions to mandatory immunizations, but that was removed from the bill by the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee. It came at a time when an outbreak of measles that began at Disneyland in California had spread to several states, causing some senators to think it would be unwise to make it possible to grant religious exemptions in West Virginia.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said he supported the bill since it was changed. “In its original form, I think, it would have taken us back. I think it would’ve put us in the place of Oregon and California where we have those outbreaks at the present,” he said.

“We will continue to have among the highest vaccination rates in the country.” – Sen. Ron Stollings

Stollings, who is a physician and the former chairman of the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee, said West Virginia would still have a strong vaccination law with the bill, and it would fix a problem of having inconsistencies in the granting of exemptions from county to county. “We will continue to have among the highest vaccination rates in the country,” he said.

Senate Bill 286 has gone to the House Health and Human Resources Committee for further consideration.

One other bill with both education and health implications, Senate Bill 424, received the approval of the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee this week and was sent on to the Senate Education Committee for further consideration. The bill would eliminate the statutory requirements for tuberculosis testing for school children and school personnel who are at low risk for tuberculosis. This type of testing is no longer recommended and the cost of conducting the testing is unjustified by the results. There has never been an active case of tuberculosis discovered through this testing.

Dominic Gaziano, medical director for the Division of Tuberculosis Elimination in the Bureau for Public Health, told the committee that TB is a serious disease but not as common as it once was. In 1946, West Virginia had 2,600 cases and maintained 1,300 sanatorium beds to treat, he said, but in the 1960s, the sanatorium beds were eliminated, except for one bed in Welch that is used to handle occasional TB cases.

“Tuberculosis has been diminishing in this country,” Gaziano said.  Worldwide, there are 10 million cases, but the United States has only about 10,000 cases, he said. In 2012, West Virginia had the lowest incidence of TB of any state with just eight cases, he said, but it was still costing the state too much money.

“This is the only disease that government is required to pay for in full – its treatment and its placement – and it’s the only disease in which an individual is required to take the treatment or he goes to a locked cell,” Gaziano said, but the statutory requirement for testing school children and school personnel no longer is justified.  “In 20 years, we’ve had no TB found through this particular process of skin testing. The money is wasted -- $42,000.”

Gaziano said that money could be used better to find groups with elevated levels of TB.

A similar bill, House Bill 2669, is moving through the House of Delegates.

 

 

By Jim Wallace

The House of Delegates this week approved two education-related bills and is moving toward approving several more, but a bill that is not that far along in the legislative process received the most attention, at least from members of the House Education Committee. They debated issues of student safety and flexibility for county school districts as they changed a bill that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin proposed for balancing the budget.

In the form that House Bill 2478 came out of the committee, it still would give the governor almost $9 million needed to balance the budget for the fiscal year that will begin in July, but it would not lengthen the replacement schedule for school buses as Tomblin had requested.

As proposed by the governor, the bill would have revised the School Aid Formula in four key ways. First, it would eliminate the authority of boards of education in counties with growing populations to designate regular school board levy revenues due to new construction or improvements to a Growth County School Facilities Act Fund. Second, it would authorize propane as an eligible fuel for the 10 percent additional allowance for school bus systems using alternative fuels. Third, it would have extended the bus replacement cycle from 12 to 15 years. Fourth, it would eliminate certain adjustments in the basic foundation program.

Most of the committee’s discussion in the House Education Committee was about extending the replacement cycle for school buses. Delegate David Perry, D-Fayette, recalled that the cycle was extended from nine years to 12 years not too many years ago. So he asked, “Why are we moving it from 12 to 15 years when we’ve had success?” 

Mike McKown, director of the State Budget Office, said the governor proposed that as one means of helping to balance the budget. “We had a huge budget gap, and this is one piece of the puzzle that helped to balance that.”

“We had a huge budget gap, and this is one piece of the puzzle that helped to balance that.” – Mike McKown

Asked if the governor looked at any studies about whether buses should be used for so long before being replaced, McKown said, “We just put the numbers together to balance the budget.” He said the administration figured the extension of the life cycle for school buses would save $8.9 million per year. But committee members were concerned about the safety of buses used as long as 15 years and called upon individuals with direct knowledge about bus maintenance issues.

Jimmy Lacy, secretary of the West Virginia Association for Pupil Transportation, said some maintenance issues, such as rust on the frames, must be fixed by bus manufacturers rather than by local school district maintenance people. He said the terrain on which the buses are driven can affect how long the buses can last. For example, the frame rails tend to last only about 10 years on buses driven through rural routes with much road salt in winter weather, he said.

Asked by Delegate Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, whether he thought extending bus use another three years could cause safety issues, Lacy said, “Yes, I do. There’s a lot of issues that we face, and the [extension] of those years creates a safety hazard for our students.”

Larry Fowler of Matheny Motors, which one of the vendors for school buses, told members that he was concerned about extending the replacement cycle. “Most counties, especially the small, rural counties, are way behind on the 12-year replacement cycle already,” he said. “It’s just going to steamroll and snowball into much, much bigger problems down the road.”

“I’m truthfully concerned about the safety of these buses. I don’t remember the last time we’ve had a child killed in a bus accident in West Virginia.” – Delegate Roy Cooper

Delegate Roy Cooper, R-Summers, said, “I’m truthfully concerned about the safety of these buses. I don’t remember the last time we’ve had a child killed in a bus accident in West Virginia.” He suggested that buses would need to be inspected more if they would be driven longer. Lacy explained that the Education Department currency has four state inspectors and a vacant position for one more. They inspect every bus in the state twice a year, he said. “Everything that they can look at, they look at,” he added.

 

Amendment offered as a compromise.

To address committee members’ concerns, Delegate Ricky Moye, D-Raleigh, proposed an amendment to return the language in the bill to the current replacement cycle of 12 years but also limit state spending for bus replacements for one year to $13.1 million. That would be a reduction from the current level of spending $22 million in state money each year for bus replacements, to it would free up the $8.9 million needed to balance the budget but only for one year, not on an ongoing basis.

Most committee members supported the amendment. Delegate Walter Duke, R-Berkeley, said it would plug the hole in the budget and then allow legislators to revisit the issue next year after gathering more data about bus replacement costs.

Delegate David Perry, D-Fayette, said, “As an Education Committee, we are a policymaking body and not a Finance Committee. It is our responsibility to look out for the safety of the children in the state of West Virginia, and I think in so doing, we are maintaining that responsibility. And hopefully, the governor will understand not to bring this back to us next year, and we don’t have to have this discussion on safety and the well-being of the children of the state of West Virginia.”

Only Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood, spoke against the amendment. He said saving money was not worth it “if we have one child that gets injured in that additional year.”

“I think that this amendment is a compromise to help with balancing the budget and seeing to the safety of our children.” – Delegate Ricky Moye

But Moye argued that the amendment was a way to give the governor the money needed to balance the budget without endangering student safety for years to come. “We’re not going to change the bus replacement cycle,” he said. “It’ll stay the same. Counties will still have money to replace buses, just not as many for one year. They’ll take a little bit of a hit for one year. And I would agree with my colleague that we don’t want to sacrifice the safety of any children at all. I think that this amendment is a compromise to help with balancing the budget and seeing to the safety of our children.”

The committee approved the amendment with 23 members in favor of it and only Kelly opposed to it. 

To conform to that change, the committee unanimously approved another amendment from Moye to keep language in the School Aid Formula that generally makes buses eligible for replacement at 180,000 miles rather than changing it to 240,000 miles, as the governor had proposed.

 

Committee rejects attempt to limit district flexibility.

But the committee rejected another amendment from Moye that would have limited new flexibility the governor wants to give school districts by allowing them to divert bus replacement funds when they have more urgent needs to be funded. The amendment would have limited that flexibility to no more than the cost of one bus or $100,000, whichever would be less.

Moye said he wanted to prohibit a superintendent from taking all the money for bus replacement for one year and using it for other projects but still give the superintendent the flexibility to use up to $100,000 on an urgent project. The way the bill is written, he said, it would seem to allow a superintendent to replace no buses in a particular year. He said school bus costs range from about $85,000 to more than $100,000.

But Duke opposed the amendment, saying that superintendents need flexibility. “I think this would be micromanaging and reduce that flexibility if you put that kind of specific language in code,” he said

“I think one of the goals of much of the legislation that we’ve introduced this session is to expand, not limit, the flexibility of our counties.” – Delegate Paul Espinosa

Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, opposed the amendment for the same reason. “I think one of the goals of much of the legislation that we’ve introduced this session is to expand, not limit, the flexibility of our counties,” he said. Mandating from Charleston needlessly limits districts’ options, he said.

However, Perry argued in favor of the amendment. “This amendment allows some flexibility for superintendents upwards to $100, 000,” he said. “So flexibility is there for the county superintendent’s discretion but not total discretion at the expense of safety or reliability.”

Moye said he disagreed that his proposed amendment would take flexibility away from superintendents. Instead, he said, it would just limit new flexibility the bill would give them.

“We have heard that some counties struggle,” Moye said. “Their budgets are so tight.”

Even so, he said, he wasn’t totally comfortable with the amendment’s provision to allow a district to defer replacement of one bus with the approval of the state superintendent. “Ladies and gentlemen, I will tell you that even at this, it gives me heartburn,” Moye said. “I am not crazy about this, but it is a compromise. It does give them flexibility, but it doesn’t give them a blank check.”

Eleven committee members voted for the amendment, but 13 voted against it, so it was defeated. But the split was not along party lines.

The House Education Committee approved the bill and sent it to the House Finance Committee for further consideration.

The committee also approved House Bill 2702, which was on track to pass in the House of Delegates as early as Friday. It would redefine the service personnel class titles of early childhood classroom assistant teachers to smooth the transition of former early childhood aides to this new classification of school service personnel. The changes include protections from reduction in force or transfer for those aides eligible for full retirement benefits before July 1, 2020, to create vacancies for less-senior early childhood classroom assistant teacher. It also would require an aide who becomes employed as early childhood classroom assistant teacher to hold certain multi-classification status and would include early childhood classroom assistant teachers in same classification category as aides.

 

Bills move closer to House passage.

Several other bills have gotten through at least one committee and were scheduled today before the first of three readings before the full House of Delegates. That means they could pass out of the House as early as Monday.

House Bill 2632 would exempt the procurement of instructional materials, digital content resources, instructional technology, hardware, software, telecommunications and technical services for use in and in support of public schools from Division of Purchasing requirements. The bill would require the state school board to define “equitable distribution,” require certain technology tools to adhere to state contract prices, add personalized learning as potential student use for technology and provide for technology system specialists. The House Education Committee approved the bill, and a second reference to the House Finance Committee was waived.

House Bill 2669 would eliminate the statutory requirements for tuberculosis testing for school children and school personnel who are at low risk for tuberculosis. This type of testing is no longer recommended and the cost of conducting the testing is unjustified by the results. There has never been an active case of tuberculosis discovered through this testing. The House Education Committee approved the bill, and a second reference to the House Health and Human Resources Committee was waived. A similar bill, Senate Bill 424, received the approval of the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee this week.

House Bill 2140 would establish a process to build governance and leadership capacity of county boards during periods of state intervention. It would require such a county board to establish goals and action plans for improvement and sustained success to end intervention in not more than five years. The goals and action plans would be subject to approval of the state school board and must include needed training and active engagement by the county board in the improvement process. Progress on the goals and action plans would have to be assessed annually with a report made to the state board on the readiness of the county board to accept return of control and sustain improvement. If a determination would be made at the fifth annual assessment that the county board is still not ready, the state board would have to hold a public hearing in the county so that the reasons for continued intervention and concerns of citizens may be heard. Continued intervention would be allowed only after the hearing. Supports for continued improvement would have to continue, as needed, for three years following the end of an intervention. For another intervention to occur within those three years, another public hearing would have to be held.

The House Education Committee approved the bill, and a second reference to the House Finance Committee was waived.

House Bill 2139 would restart expired provisions that allow retired teachers to be employed as substitutes in areas of critical need and shortage for substitutes beyond the 140-day post-retirement employment limit. The bill would add additional features to improve monitoring of compliance with the provisions and encourage the long-term posting of critical shortage positions. The House Finance Committee approved it this week. The House Education Committee previously approved it.

House Bill 2545 would change code language that allows teachers to be reimbursed for fees incurred in completing or renewing certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. It is meant to adapt to changes made by the national board. The House Finance Committee approved the bill this week. The House Education Committee had previously approved it.

House Bill 2598 would ensure that teachers of students with disabilities receive complete information about a school’s plan (known as a 504 plan) for accommodating the children’s disabilities. The House Education Committee approved the bill.

 

House sends two bills to the Senate.

Two bills have received approval from the House of Delegates and have gone to the Senate.

House Bill 2160 would make the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind eligible to participate in any and all funding administered or distributed by the West Virginia School Building Authority. The House approved it on a 95-0 vote with five members absent. It has gone to the Senate Education Committee.

House Bill 2391 would authorize the state school board to annually grant a waiver to a county board to implement a full-day early childhood education program that has children in attendance four days per week and uses the fifth day for staff to work on program delivery to improve student learning. The request for a waiver must have the support of a majority of the participating families. The current statute requires the programs to be available full days, five days per week. The House approved the bill on a 99-0 vote with one member absent.

 

Editor’s Note – Jim Wallace is a former government reporter for theCharleston 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.