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March 3, 2017 - Volume 37 Issue 5

By Jim Wallace

Editor’s Note: Refer to Upshur County Board of Education member Greenbrier Almond’s comments regarding the West Virginia School Board Association’s Winter Conference ’17 which is included in the “WVSBA” section of the publication.

Gov. Jim Justice has received a warmer reception from members of the West Virginia School Board Association than he has from many legislators. Attendees at the WVSBA’s Winter Conference ’17 welcomed the governor’s pledges to give them more opportunities for control at the local level.

His address came a day after the introduction of Senate Bill 420, which contains his proposals for public education. Those proposals include eliminating the Regional Education Service Agencies, Eliminating the Office of Education Performance Audits, removing the requirement for schools to have 180 separate days of instruction each year, and getting rid of economies of scale as one of the criteria for the School Building Authority to use in choosing school construction projects.

Justice told the WVSBA conference that he wants to get West Virginia away from a “Charleston-knows-best” attitude. He said he listened to many educators at roundtable meetings around the state.

“We need to restore a lot of our educational process back to the local level. – Gov. Jim Justice

“We need to restore a lot of our educational process back to the local level,” Justice said to applause from the school board members and superintendents in attendance. “I am not an advocate of consolidation. I’m an advocate of community schools. I’m an advocate of bringing the intellectual resource to the school instead of taking the school to the intellectual resource.”

On the problems caused by consolidation, he said, “I think when you take the school out of the community you kill the community. And I think over and over and over we have done this, and we’ve done it out of desperation.”

The governor called the state budget, which is facing a shortfall of around $500 million, “super bad.” He said he and legislators must balance the budget somehow.

“I don’t care how that’s done – a cigarette tax, soda pop tax, half a penny, two-tenths of a percent on businesses, cut any additional waste we can find that’s legitimate,” Justice said. “I don’t care how that’s done provided we don’t do one thing, and that is cripple the patient – cut into the bone and hurt as even more.”

On his vision for West Virginia, the governor told attendees, “You are such a big part of the puzzle. Remember, you’re the centerpiece. We’re going to do everything we possibly can to drive education back to you…. You are going to have an opportunity like you can’t imagine.”

Justice said he wants to make West Virginia an “education mecca” and make education an economic driver for the state.

On Monday, the governor presented an alternative version of his budget proposal. Republican leaders of the West Virginia Legislature say they should have their version of the state budget ready soon. They also have said they are glad that Gov. Jim Justice has backed off his original budget proposal and come out with a new one.

“I was very pleased that he proposed an alternative,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said on the MetroNews Radio Network’s Talkline.

In his State of the State address on February 8, Justice proposed about $450 million in tax and fee increases, as well as $26 million in cuts. His new plan includes new tax increases that would have the added effect of improving West Virginians’ health:

  • A tax of one cent per ounce on sugary drinks to raise an estimated $85 million.
  • An increase of 50 cents per pack in the tax on cigarettes to raise an estimated $47.8 million. That would follow last year’s increase of 65 cents per pack, which brought the cigarette tax up to $1.20.

In addition, the governor wants to impose higher taxes on high-income West Virginians: an extra $500 for people making more than $200,000, an extra $750 for those making more than $250,000, and an extra $1,000 on those making more than $300,000. That would raise about $8 million for Justice’s Save Our State fund for infrastructure and development. He also has lowered his requests for two other taxes: a consumer sales tax increase of just 0.25 percent and a commercial activities tax of just 0.075 percent.

The governor still has $26 million in cuts in his budget plan but said he would be open to considering another $50 million if legislators come up with them.

House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said on Talkline that Justice apparently made his new proposal because he realized he lacked legislative support for his first one. However, Armstead doubted the governor would get much support for his new tax proposals. But Carmichael did not rule out the possibility that the Senate might consider the taxes.

“We’re not taking anything off the table. Our first impulse, though, is to right-size this government.” – Senate President Mitch Carmichael

“We’re not taking anything off the table,” he said. “Our first impulse, though, is to right-size this government.”

Carmichael said he thought Republicans could propose cuts of more than $200 million, but he offered little hope for Justice’s proposed 2 percent pay raises for teachers. “It’s difficult to give anybody a pay raise,” he said.

By Jim Wallace

An education policy expert at a national foundation would like school board members and others to treat public education as a community endeavor. That was the theme of the address Phil Lurie, a program officer at the Kettering Foundation, gave at the West Virginia School Board Association’s Winter Conference ’17.

To some, it might seem obvious that the community should be involved in public education, but Lurie said the “educational citizenship” of Americans has shrunk and they tend to turn over responsibility for schools to education professionals. And that is not good for the American democratic system, he contended.

Democracy requires responsible citizens who can make sound decisions and act on them, Lurie said. Democracy requires institutions with public legitimacy that contribute to strengthening democracy, he said.

But he said a range of problems prevent democracy from working:

  • Citizens are sidelined. They are not engaged and are reluctant to get engaged in conventional electoral politics or even civic efforts with other citizens.
  • The political system is polarized. Issues are discussed in ways that promote divisiveness or not all options are considered.
  • People react hastily without reaching shared judgment.
  • People disagree about what to do.
  • People don’t think they have the resources to act.
  • People’s efforts go in so many directions they are not effective.
  • There is mutual distrust between citizens and more major institutions.
  • There is an absence of learning.

To combat these problems, opportunities arise for citizens to turn routines that occur every day into democratic practices to give them more control their future and the problems they face, Lurie said. Those practices include:

  • Naming problems to identify things people consider valuable.
  • Making decisions deliberatively to move opinions from first impressions to more shared and reflected judgment.
  • Identifying and committing resources that often go unrecognized and unused.
  • Organizing civic actions so they complement one another. That makes the whole of people’s efforts more than the sum of the parts.
  • Learning as a community to keep up civic momentum.

Lurie said he was not offering a step-by-step process but a matter of how problems are discussed. He said communities are made up of small, interacting spheres, bound together in alliances that emerge from recognition of interdependence among different concerns.

“We’ve found that the key has been the use of learning as a conceptual lens,” Lurie said. Change is inevitable and requires learning, he said. Communities either grow and adapt or decline in the face of changing conditions, he said.

“Building and maintaining a community is therefore a matter of building and maintaining the relationships that facilitate the civic interactions through which people think and act together,” Lurie said.

In his opinion, the West Virginia Center for Civic Life is perhaps the best example of an effective organization. For more than 20 years, it has explored ways to put democratic practices at the heart of Kettering’s research into use, he said. The center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes public engagement on issues that affect West Virginia and the nation.

“They believe that the health of our democracy depends on people coming together to talk about common problems and setting directions for how people want to work together,” Lurie said. “They work with partners throughout the state, including the West Virginia School Board Association, to develop initiatives in order to address issues that are timely and relevant to the state.”

“Education has unfortunately become widely seen as the singular responsibility of professionals and schools. As education has become schooling, the non-school educational assets in communities have largely disappeared from the naming and framing of public choices about issues that affect the education of youth.” – Phil Lurie

In regard to education, the Kettering Foundation works on a simple premise that young people are educated through experiences that occur inside and outside of schools, he said, but there are challenges. “One is that education has unfortunately become widely seen as the singular responsibility of professionals and schools,” Lurie said. “As education has become schooling, the non-school educational assets in communities have largely disappeared from the naming and framing of public choices about issues that affect the education of youth.”

That results in the atrophy of educational citizenship, which is the shared sense that communities of people have the responsibility and power to shape education of children, he said. “This weakens educational outcomes and reduces public confidence in school institutions,” he said. “It also weakens the popular sense of the democratic capacity for communities to shape the futures of children, which is a fundamental threat to democracy itself.”

Lurie said the Kettering Foundation has organized its research into three areas: innovations in the practices through which people act as educational citizens, how people recognize the democratic practices through which they can try comprehensive and complementary educational practices, and innovations in the ways in which professionals in school districts can work to be elements of democratic politics in their communities.

The challenge is to change practices so that actions can be made more constructive and more complementary, he said. The foundation’s focus is on how political communities and citizens and institutions in them can act in ways that recognize, encourage and share responsibilities to govern the education of children, Lurie said.

“What we’re trying to do is unpack and understand the concept of community politics, where communities are recognized as networks of interaction amongst all sorts of people and organizations doing all sorts of things,” he said. The foundation wants organizations to bring people together in constructive and deliberative conversations and recognize an approach to problem-solving based on the need for complementary public action by an array of actors, including professionals and schools, Lurie said.

Although the foundation doesn’t have much to say about school boards, he said, it recognizes that, for democracy to work as it should, people need to be able to shape their future.

“Public education has become more and more disconnected from public life over time. Education has widely become seen as the singular responsibility of schools and professionals.” – Phil Lurie

“One of the most obvious ways doing that is the ability to influence the education of the next generation,” Lurie said. However, he said, “Public education has become more and more disconnected from public life over time. Education has widely become seen as the singular responsibility of schools and professionals. That trend also has emerged as boards of education have become school boards. So once created as the voice of community on issues, school boards have become focused on the management and leadership of school districts. They have come to be modeled on corporate governance boards and seek to provide oversight and governance. So the challenge we have identified is that communities have lost opportunities for engagement and deliberation on essential questions related to education. Moreover, there is a lack of understanding as to how schooling can be made a compliment to other community-based education-related endeavors.”

One research opportunity he said the Kettering Foundation has identified is built on the insight that a community would have to have opportunities for citizens to talk with other citizens around educational concerns such that the education-related endeavors could complement each other while dealing with tensions that arise. “We think that boards of education could possibly serve this role,” Lurie said. “So we’re interested in learning from those that might see this in their interest.”

That doesn’t have to be a formally elected board but could be a group of citizens who see education as a community endeavor and a worthwhile mission to explore, he added.

Board members and superintendents offer their perspectives.

After Lurie’s address, a panel of school board members and superintendents responded to a series of questions based on his presentation. Here are a few excerpts:

Q: How does creating community involvement and ownership in education strengthen citizenship?

Miller Hall, a member of the West Virginia Board of Education, said people took more pride in their communities in the past. “People got more involved than they do now,” he said.

Lori Kestner, a Marshall County Board of Education member and WVSBA’s financial officer, said she has seen a cultural change in parents. “We have taken the community school and we’ve moved it now 20 minutes away from my house,” she said. “And for me to be involved as a parent, it’s harder. So we kind of created this new culture.”

arbara Whitecotton, a member of the West Virginia Board of Education, said she agreed with that assessment. She said educators recognize that and must do something about it. “I don’t have a plan in my pocket because I faced those same frustrations when I was working as a superintendent of schools or as a principal or as an assistant principal,” she said. “Then when something happened, [parents] would show up, so they lacked credibility…. Our parents lack credibility when they do come to the table.”

Q: In this shared educational responsibility, how would it create better student outcomes?

“The school system has stepped up to the plate on numerous occasions and started raising the child. When we took that responsibility, we took away this concept of shared responsibility.” – Barbara Whitecotton

Whitecotton said the school system took responsibility when no one else would. “The school system has stepped up to the plate on numerous occasions and started raising the child,” she said. “When we took that responsibility, we took away this concept of shared responsibility.”

In the days when she was growing up, she said, parents sat with children as they did their school work, but that doesn’t happen so much anymore. Whitecotton said schools had no choice but to take responsibility. She said that, if they didn’t call authorities at time, some students would not still be alive. But she said society must find a way back to shared responsibility. She said that goes along with what Gov. Jim Justice is saying when he talks about bringing decisions back to the local level.

Jeff Woofter, superintendent of the Barbour County schools, said school authorities must make tough decisions. He noted that, although the governor said he opposes consolidation, sometimes schools get to be too small to work well and must be combined. When his system had to combine two small schools, he said, he met with parents and explained it not based on money but on it being in the best interest of their children.

“Look at what’s in that child’s best interest,” Woofter said. “Then the parents can get on board.”

Whitecotton also advised local school officials to keep on top of the bills moving through the legislature because they can affect education tremendously.

Q: How does involving the community, supporting citizenship and creating better student outcomes support democracy?

Gary Price, superintendent of the Marion County schools and vice president of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators, said, “The public school system we have in the United States is the root of democracy. It does give people an equal footing and equal opportunity to make the most of what skills you have.” He said it’s the responsibility of the school system and the entire community to show students what opportunities are out there.

Terry George, superintendent of the Fayette County schools, said the key is having two-way communication between communities and schools. He said school leaders must make decisions about schools that are driven by curriculum and data. “We don’t always have to agree on why we do things, but we have to understand that, when we do it, it’s for the right reason,” he said. “It’s for students.”

Barbara Parsons, president of the Monongalia County Board of Education and president-elect of the WVSBA, said school gives young people their first exposure to democracy. “Our schools are essential to teaching and modeling as public institutions the concept of democracy,” she said. “And I sometimes think, even I fail to appreciate how important that is.”

Several members of the audience also offered comments. One of them was Steve Slockett, a member of the Fayette County Board of Education, who said he got involved because he couldn’t stand what was going on in the schools.

“I became a cicada from Mars that rose up out of the high grass into this arena. And I wanted change. I wanted positive change, and I wanted the kids of Fayette County as a priority.” – Steve Slockett

“I became a cicada from Mars that rose up out of the high grass into this arena,” he said. “And I wanted change. I wanted positive change, and I wanted the kids of Fayette County as a priority.”

Now Slockett is part of a four-to-one majority on the school board. He said it has become a success story, gaining control of the school system from the state. “These other gentlemen and me are correcting a social injustice that existed in Fayette County for 30 years,” he said. “We’re improving academics and the deplorable facilities’ conditions that exist. If you put students and children first and academics, you’re all winners.”

 

By Jim Wallace

The Senate Education Committee has approved bills to change the summative tests that West Virginia students take and to change the date for determining when children should start school, but just as noteworthy is the legislation that Senate Education Chairman Kenny Mann has said would have trouble getting through the committee. He told attendees at the West Virginia School Board Association’s Winter Conference ’17 that he’s not too keen on school choice bills.

“I’m a huge public school fan.” – Sen. Kenny Mann

“I’m a huge public school fan,” Mann, R-Monroe, said, while noting that he is hearing quite a bit from school choice advocates. “I see people’s points on things of what they’re trying to tell me. I know they pay taxes. I know you all do, too. We all do.”

On that point that some people are paying taxes for the public schools and also paying for other schools for their own children, he said, “I get that, but when [do] the people come in wanting their tax credits that don’t have children? They’re paying the same taxes as we are. We cannot afford to open that door right now.”

The issue of school choice also is related to the state’s budget crunch, Mann said.

“Public educators are hoping for a 2 percent raise, and don’t think we’re not looking under every rock right now to find it for school service personnel and professionals,” he said. “But it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen if people will just bear with us. But if I run these agendas [on school choice], it’s going to take from our public education. So I can’t do it. I didn’t sign up for that. When I swore in the oath, I’m here to take care of a free and public education.”

Mann received applause for such statements. He also said that he is no stranger to working with difficult budgets. When he started on the Monroe County Board of Education, the school system had a $1.7 million deficit, but now the system is $6 million in the black, he said.

Noting that he also is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee’s budget subcommittee on education, Mann said, “I don’t see a whole lot [of cuts] on K through 12. We may tweak a few things.” It’s easier to cut higher education, he said, but legislators also want to give the state colleges and universities more flexibility.

One way he said the state should save a few million dollars is by switching away from using the Smarter Balanced tests, which cost about $7.7 million a year. He said it would cost only about $4 million a year to use the ACT and ACT Aspire tests. Kentucky has been using ACT and is finding more students are passing it and going to college, Mann said. The bill to do that, Senate Bill 18, has passed out of the Senate Education Committee and gone to the Senate Finance Committee after being amended to use more generic language instead of referring directly to ACT.

Mann welcomes more flexibility for schools.

On another matter, he said he was “thrilled” that the Senate has passed Senate Bill 242 and sent it to the House of Delegates. That bill would change the requirement for schools to have 180 separate days of instruction to just having the equivalent number of minutes. “Our school systems will be a whole lot better doing that,” he said.

A bill Mann is looking forward to running would prohibit parents from pulling students facing truancy charges out of school by saying they will home-school them. He said home-schoolers say only a small number of people abuse that, but his response is that he doesn’t have to worry about the smart kids because they will make it no matter what school they attend.

“But on the other hand, when Mom and Dad don’t take the responsibility that you all are talking about, it’s too easy,” Mann said. “They can pull right out, and I can’t even track them.”

“Whether it’s public, Christian, private, home school, it does not matter. Education starts at home.” – Sen. Kenny Mann

About 86 percent of the students in America go through public schools, he said, but he added that he still cares for students who go to private schools and home schools. “Whether it’s public, Christian, private, home school, it does not matter,” Mann said. “Education starts at home.” He added that authorities need to hold parents responsible for making sure their children are cared for.

On Thursday, the Senate Education Committee approved Senate Bill 186, which would adjust the date upon which children become eligible for certain school programs and school attendance requirements. The bill would change the requirement for entering kindergarten from being age five prior to September 1 to being age five prior to July 1. Likewise, July 1 would be used to determine when four-year-olds should enter the early childhood education program and to determine when six-year-olds are required to attend school. The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for further consideration.

Another bill stalled in the committee this week when senators decided they needed more information about how it would work. Senate Bill 251 would create a three-year pilot program to establish school-based mental and behavioral health services for students and families as an alternative to the standard disciplinary measures.

Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said he wanted to find out from the state Supreme Court how referrals from courts would work. He also would like to require reports to the legislature about whether the program is effective.

Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said, “I’d just like to know how this is going to work on the ground.”

Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, asked how many schools would meet the eligibility requirement for the program by either having a school-based health center providing mental and behavioral health services or “an expanded school mental health framework.”

Justin Boggs, assistant director of the Education Department’s Office of Student and School Support, said he did know how many. But he said his department works with the Department of Health and Human Resources to bring together the school-based health centers and work with expanded school mental health framework. He explained that the framework refers to collaboration between the Department of Education and DHHR. It’s not just about intervention but also prevention, he said. Some districts are looking for mental health providers but might not be able to hire them in their areas, he said.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said he is concerned about the mental health workforce in rural areas. He suggested that telehealth would be one way to serve those areas.

Boggs said some schools already do that. “Mental health seems to be something that many schools are struggling with right now,” he said, adding that his office receives many requests for help.

Plymale expressed concern about duplication because DHHR already has personnel assigned to such services. He said he has family members who work in that field. He suggested that the program called for in the bill should be targeted at elementary schools.

Generally agreeing with that, Boggs said elementary students are not always vocal about the problems they have, and many schools see problems in the elementary grades.

Plymale said the need varies from county to county. “Some counties have very effective programs of identifying this,” he said. “It tends to be some of the more rural counties that can’t provide the services.”

Mann said the committee would take up the bill again after it gets more information.

By Jim Wallace

The House of Delegates has approved two education bills unanimously this week, and other bills are moving through the legislative process.

One bill the House passed on a 100-to-zero vote is Senate Bill 231, which would allow county school boards not to pursue Medicaid reimbursement for certain services when cost of seeking the reimbursement is more than what the boards would get back. Actually, the House amended House Bill 2420, which has the same purpose, into the Senate bill. That means the House and Senate have different versions of Senate Bill 231, which will have to be reconciled.

The other bill to receive approval of all the delegates is House Bill 2123, which 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. It has gone to the Senate Education Committee for further consideration.

Up for a vote that could pass it today is House Bill 2651, which would change the requirement for standardized tests administered to students at private schools. It was the subject of a long debate on Thursday. Some delegates, such as Justin Marcum, D-Mingo, wanted to amend the bill to eliminate the required testing.

“I never could understand why the state of West Virginia was involved in requiring private schools to have standardized tests.” – Delegate Justin Marcum

“I never could understand why the state of West Virginia was involved in requiring private schools to have standardized tests,” he said. “We’ve seen that the state of West Virginia is currently working toward eliminating so much testing in the school system and basically just allowing our teachers to teach.”

A few opponents of the bill said they also would like to eliminate most required testing in public schools.

Among those who supported the bill without the proposed change was Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, who said the only two independent schools in the state are in her district and they support the bill. “Private school does have accountability with the parents that actually pay the tuition when, if they do not feel they are getting bang for their buck, they’re not likely to continue paying tuition to that school,” she said.

The amendment died with 38 delegates in favor of it and 58 opposed. Another amendment died on a voice vote.

Other bills are still moving through House committees. The House Education Committee has approved House Bill 2373, which would authorize school bus drivers trained in administration of epinephrine auto-injectors to administer auto-injectors to students or school personnel experiencing an anaphylactic reaction. The bill also would make school bus drivers immune from liability for use of an epinephrine auto-injector except in cases of gross negligence or willful misconduct. The bill has gone to the House Judiciary Committee for further consideration.

Another bill approved by the House Education Committee is House Bill 2561, which would create additional flexibility for school systems in the use of school aid funds. It has gone to the House Finance Committee for further consideration.

A third bill approved by the House Education Committee is House Bill 2637. It would attempt to ease the shortage of teachers across the state by allowing retired teachers to serve as substitutes longer than they are now permitted to do. It also has gone to the House Finance Committee for further consideration.

By Jim Wallace

The Senate Select Committee on Tax Reform is trying to push forward on a bill to eliminate West Virginia’s income tax and replace it with a broad-based, 8 percent sales tax. However, Gov. Jim Justice has backed off of his support for eliminating the income tax until the state stabilizes its finances. He told reporters Monday that to remove the income tax too quickly would be “phenomenally risky.”

Nevertheless, the committee has shown no inclination to slow down its work on Senate Bill 335, which would replace the current consumer sales and service tax, the use tax, the personal income tax and the corporate net income tax with a new general consumption tax. That tax would cover most goods and services, including groceries. The bill also would provide for a temporary, single-rate income tax that would be used only if the state’s Rainy Day Fund would fall below 15 percent of the state’s general revenue budget.

On Monday, Michael Caryl, a former tax commissioner serving as a special consultant to the committee, explained the bill, but the committee did not take any action on it.

“I think we should be able to have all of the information so we do know what it’s doing to every tax bracket.” – Sen. Bob Plymale

The committee went forward with considering the bill even though it does not have a fiscal note. On Friday, Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, asked for a fiscal note with the bill, but he is one of only two Democrats on the seven-member committee, and the majority rejected his motion. Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, spoke against Plymale’s motion.

“We don’t control when we get the fiscal note,” Blair said. “That could potentially slow down the process of what we have to do here in this committee.”

But Plymale argued, “I think we should be able to have all of the information so we do know what it’s doing to every tax bracket.”

Also on Friday, the committee heard from Jared Walczak of the Tax Foundation who encouraged West Virginia legislators to take “groundbreaking” action. “Sometimes, a state needs to consider bold moves,” he said.

At the same meeting, Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, argued for using earned income tax credits to help lower-income West Virginians. He said the proposed legislation would give high-income earners big tax cuts but would increase taxes for about 80 percent of West Virginians.

 

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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.