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January 10, 2020 - Volume 40 Issue 1

By Jim Wallace

West Virginia legislators have begun their 60-day regular session for 2020 with limited direction from Gov. Jim Justice but plenty of ideas of their own. However, it looks as though public education will play a smaller role in this year’s session than in the past few sessions, when such issues as pay raises for teachers and the authorization of charter schools were prominent.

Traditionally, the governor sets out many legislative initiatives in his State of the State address, but Justice’s tradition has been to not give traditional speeches to the legislature. On Wednesday evening, he delivered a rambling State of the State address that was filled with cheers for progress he said West Virginia has made in the last few years but few new initiatives and a lack of information about how those initiatives are to work. Instead of specifics, the governor offered plenty of folksy stories, introductions of people in the audience and some theatrics in his speech, which lasted about an hour and 20 minutes.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the state of our state is strong. And it’s growing stronger every day.” – Gov. Jim Justice

“Ladies and gentlemen, the state of our state is strong,” Justice said. “And it’s growing stronger every day.”

That assessment contrasted with the “pretty tough” conditions he said he faced when he became governor in 2017. “And I’m not patting myself on the back in any way,” Justice said. “I want to say without question nobody does anything alone.”

After Justice spoke, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said, “It was a feel-good speech. It was an election year speech. Now, it’s incumbent on us as a legislature to find the money, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone – who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor – said the speech included “not a whole lot of meat.” While Republican legislative leaders agreed that the speech was low on details and new initiatives, they generally liked it.

“It was a very uplifting speech, one that highlights the progress that we’ve made in the state of West Virginia over the past several years – all the new jobs, the new opportunities, the revenue growth, the pay raises,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said. “So I was encouraged that the governor puts a bright spotlight on the accomplishments and has a vision for the future to move our state continually forward.”

Likewise, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said, “I like that the governor is an optimist. I like that he is willing to think about bold things and just say, ‘Let’s make it happen. We will work out the details later.’ I think sometimes we do things too small, and I like the fact that he thinks big.”

The paucity of new proposals in the speech seemed to reflect the flat budget the administration is proposing, largely because severance tax revenues are down as a result of low natural gas prices and the difficulty the coal industry faces in competing with those low gas prices. The administration is proposing a general revenue budget of $4.585 billion for the fiscal year that will begin in July. That is $108.64 million less than the current year’s budget.

The proposed budget contains a total of only about $49 million in spending for new initiatives. Notably absent from that is funding for any across-the-board pay raises for teachers and other public employees after two years of 5 percent raises each year. Unlike in past years, the governor had little to say about public education. The notable exception was Justice’s call for spending about $2 million on a program in which schools send food home in backpacks on weekends for students from low-income families.

“I like that he’s willing to think about things like that.” – Speaker Roger Hanshaw

“That’s less than a rounding error in the overall state budget of $4 billion,” Hanshaw said. “But for our school cooks and school service personnel and teachers who are helping feed kids on the weekends, that’s a big deal. I like that he’s willing to think about things like that.”

Carmichael said he also likes spending money on “the things that help our children.” Along with the backpack program, he said, he likes Justice’s proposal to provide funding to the Department of Health and Human Resources to hire 87 more Child Protective Services workers as the state struggles to address problems caused by parents and others who have been swept up in West Virginia’s opioid abuse crisis.

“We are really going to put a big emphasis on eliminating the 7,000 children that are wards of the state and make sure they have viable, wonderful homes to live in,” Carmichael said.

Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, called the proposed funding for the school backpack program “a good thing.” But she added that she expects her committee to focus less on public education this year than it has in the past few years.

“We’re hoping to focus a little more on higher education institutions,” she said, adding that state colleges and universities have faced repeated budget cuts in recent years. “We would like to make them whole. We would like to establish stable funding for them. We want to make sure that we’re emphasizing and concentrating on the missions of what they should be doing, so I’m really looking forward to doing that.”

Teachers’ union still hopes for pay raises.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, heard little in the State of the State address for teachers and public school workers to be enthusiastic about. He said the state must continue to make strides to ensure every classroom has a great teacher. “And the only way to do that is to make our salaries competitive. We have to get them to where we’re competitive with contiguous states and we fill all the vacancies that we have. We also have to address the long-term solution for PEIA [Public Employees Insurance Agency]. We’re in good shape right now for the next couple of years, but we can’t fall off that cliff again in a few years.”

Asked about the prospects of getting another year of pay raises for teachers and other school workers when revenues are flat and legislators are talking little about such pay raises, Lee said, “It’s still early in the game, and there’s still a lot of time to look into the budgets and see where we can cut. And if things are improving as they say and we’re having all these things coming up, then we should be able to find some money.”

Although it’s not strictly a public education issue, Justice expressed support for a long-discussed proposal that could affect funding for school districts – a proposal legislative leaders hope will see action this year. They want the legislature to approve a resolution that would put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot so West Virginia voters could decide whether to phase out the state’s tax on manufacturing inventory and equipment. That’s of interest to public education officials because most of the almost $100 million in revenue from the tax goes to school districts and county governments.

“The business inventory and machinery tax is holding us back in some areas,” Justice said. “We need to try to find a solution to where we can either get on a glide path or quickly get on a better glide path to eliminate that tax if we can.”

Legislators and others in the audience in the House of Delegates chamber applauded, but Justice came back with a warning.

“We have to be careful,” he said. “There’s counties to consider, the school boards, there's people that we absolutely want to protect. We’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to be careful with where we are with our general overall finances. We have to be careful and we got to be smart. But I don’t want there to be anyone to doubt that I would like it gone. I would like it gone. At least gone in time.”

Carmichael and Hanshaw, as well as other legislators, had more to say about eliminating the tax last Friday when they spoke to reporters at the annual Legislative LookAhead conference put on by the West Virginia Press Association.

“For over 30 years, people have been talking about getting rid of this tax…. We want to be the legislature that gets rid of it and creates the manufacturing jobs and opportunities for our state to continue to grow in those areas.” –  Senate President Mitch Carmichael

“For over 30 years, people have been talking about getting rid of this tax,” Carmichael said. “It’s been identified by renowned economists. It’s been studied by governors from both parties, and it always comes back this is the number one job-killing tax in the state. And yet, it still remains 30 to 40 years after the studies have picked it up. We want to be the legislature that gets rid of it and creates the manufacturing jobs and opportunities for our state to continue to grow in those areas.”

Likewise, Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said repealing the tax is a legislative priority, and Hanshaw indicated the House would be ready to work on that issue.

However, it is not a simple matter to repeal the inventory and equipment tax because it is in the West Virginia Constitution. To eliminate it, legislators would have to put the issue on the state ballot, and putting it on the ballot would require approval by a super-majority of two-thirds of both the House of Delegates and the Senate. That would require the Republican majority to get significant support from minority Democrats, and Delegate Mick Bates, the top Democrat on the House Finance Committee, said there could be a fight over the issue. He said he would need assurances that school districts and county governments would not suffer from the elimination of the tax.

“Just to say we’ll fill it with general revenue isn’t the answer,” Bates, D-Raleigh, said. “So until someone can prove to me and my colleagues on our side in the House how we’re going to pay for it, then this thing is going to have a hard time gathering enough votes in the House to pass.”

“It’s largely a negative tax. The question has always been we can’t take that money out of the counties’ hands.” – Sen. Corey Palumbo

Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said he is among Democrats who have viewed the tax as a hindrance to business investment in West Virginia. “It’s largely a negative tax,” he said. “The question has always been we can’t take that money out of the counties’ hands. I mean the counties in West Virginia struggle largely because our real estate taxes are so low, much lower than most states around the country. Now, it’s not going to be politically feasible to shift that tax burden from the manufacturing companies to people on their residential taxes, but there’s got to be some way to keep the counties whole. And that’s the thing that’s been difficult for the last 10 to 15 years we’ve been looking at this.”

On that point, Blair said, “This is not going anywhere unless we do keep the counties whole. That is the most important aspect of this. We’ve been having stakeholder meetings with the county boards of education, the counties and municipalities, and the assessors, trying to be able to identify where the hiccups are, so we can come in prepared to have this legislation in place and the resolution, for that matter, that will keep the counties whole. That’s the whole key to this. It won’t work without it.”

Carmichael said eliminating the inventory and equipment tax would cost almost $100 million in revenue. He would like to phase it out over four years and believes the state has other revenue to replace it. The state’s current fiscal year budget is spending more than $230 million in one-time funding, including $105 million for the Public Employees Insurance Agency and $130 million for additional road maintenance, he said.

“If we kept the same revenue numbers, which it looks like we’re going to be on that same revenue stream, we will have approximately $200 million surplus,” Carmichael said. “That’s money that wouldn’t have been spent next year that was spent this year. That, in itself, if you wanted to take care of it in year one, would take care of it. That’s not what we’re contemplating. We’re contemplating a phase-out.”

Getting rid of the tax would put West Virginia on a level playing field with other states for economic development, he said.

“The money’s there to do it,” Carmichael said. “We just haven’t had the will to do it and ensure that the counties and boards of education are comfortable that that revenue stream will continue to come.”

Hanshaw said he had little to add to that other than: “We need as much growth as we can [get] wherever we can get it however we can get it.”

Carmichael made the case for removing the tax again when he and Hanshaw addressed the 2020 Issues & Eggs Annual Legislative Breakfast held by the Charleston Regional Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday morning, hours before the beginning of the legislative session.

“We need to do it in a way that protects the counties and protects the school boards and our education system,” he said. “Rest assured, we’re not going to just willy-nilly cut out $100 million without a plan in place to step down over a period of time and allow the growth from the tax cuts to offset the reduction.”

Work on that tax issue began earlier this week when legislators were still holding interim meetings that preceded their 60-day regular session. The Joint Standing Committee on Finance recommended passage of a resolution to put on the statewide ballot the proposed Manufacturers Growth Amendment.

Although the tax would be phased out until it is eliminated completely in 2024, Johnson said, the resolution does not indicate the source of revenue to make school districts and counties whole for the revenue they would lose. Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, expressed concern that, unless a source of replacement funding is identified, the legislature might have to raise taxes to make school districts and counties whole for about $100 million in tax revenues they would lose.As legislative counsel Jeff Johnson told committee members, “The real meat of the resolution would exempt manufacturing machinery equipment or tangible personal property purchased on or after July 1 of 2021 from ad valorem taxation.” He said it also would prohibit the reclassification of property not previously classified as manufacturing inventory.

Legislators want to help children hurt by drug issues.

Another issue outside of education that can affect public schools is how the state addresses problems faced by children who come from homes suffering from effects of West Virginia’s opioid abuse crisis. Many of those children are among about 7,000 children who have been put into the foster care system.

The legislature passed a major foster care reform bill last year, but Hanshaw, R-Clay, said it will be a big issue again this year.

“We expect another significant piece of legislation this year designed to make it easier for people to become foster parents in West Virginia.” – Speaker Roger Hanshaw

“We expect another significant piece of legislation this year designed to make it easier for people to become foster parents in West Virginia,” he said. “We expect significant reform in that area again this year because we’ve spent the interim process working together as both houses with the administration in developing and crafting that bill. You’ll see that bill introduced very early this year in the session. You’ll see it work its way through our health committees and hopefully make its way all the way to the governor’s office. We know that we have an obligation as a state to do all we can for those who are in our charge, especially among our most vulnerable populations. None can be more vulnerable than our children. None can be more important than our young people. You’ll see us move on that very early this session.”

Under Carmichael’s direction, the Senate has created a new Senate Select Committee on Children and Families to put increased focus on the foster care crisis, which involves health, economic, opioid addiction and education issues.

“This should fracture our souls and just convict us morally to say: What can we do to solve this problem or to at least alleviate it?” he said. “This committee has a lot of weight behind it.”

Carmichael has given the committee weight by appointing Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, as chairman and Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, as vice chairman. Other members include: Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson; Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion; Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone; Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming; Sen. J.R. Pitsenbarger, R-Nicholas; Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh; and Sen. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan.

“This is a powerful committee that signifies what our big priority is,” Carmichael said.

In his State of the State address, Justice said he also wants to improve the welfare of children by increasing the workforce in Child Protective Services. “We’re going to hire another 87 people that are going to be out in the field as child welfare people to be able to assist and help us in every way,” he said.

By Jim Wallace

For legislators and everyone else who are disappointed with West Virginia public school students’ performance on national tests, state Supt. Steve Paine is offering a simple guarantee the scores will be better within two years.

“The present state is totally unacceptable,” he told members of the Joint Committee on Government and Finance, which includes top leaders from both parties in the Senate and House of Delegates, one of the committee’s meetings leading up to the current regular legislative session. “We must do better.”

“I will guarantee you will see the NAEP scores go up in two years.” – Supt. Steve Paine

Paine noted that Mississippi led the nation in gains in student achievement this year, as seen in scores for National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. That’s significant because often, when West Virginia has ranked very low in national rankings on various criteria from education to health care, some West Virginians have taken comfort in seeing Mississippi ranked even lower. That has resulted in an expression, “Thank God for Mississippi.”

To find out why Mississippi had improved so much in student achievement, Paine said, he spoke with the state superintendent and literacy coordinator. He said they told him Mississippi had benefited from stability in the system in terms of leadership, standards, assessments, instructional methodologies, and training of early literacy coaches in low-performing schools. He said Mississippi legislator funded about 180 positions for early literacy coaches.

“It takes at least three years for any state law code or policy actions to effectuate performance change in the classroom and in the school,” Paine said. “I believe we’re laying the foundation for a system that, if we provide some stability to that system and we implement with fidelity, I will guarantee you will see the NAEP scores go up in two years.”

To understand why West Virginia students did so poorly on the latest NAEP tests, Paine said, consider what was going on three to four years ago in the state’s education system. That’s when there were battles over education standards, including the Common Core, and changes in leadership on the state school board and in the state superintendent’s position, which he said created instability.

“These results really are a direct reflection of that time,” Paine said.

In response, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said, “I just want to make sure that we all collectively come together and say this is not acceptable. It’s no fault of our teachers or students or parents. It’s the system we’ve put in place that is not generating the results that our students are due. They should have a world-class education.”

Agreeing, Paine said the state needs stability in the system and in the standards. He said the standards, instructional methodologies, leadership training for principals and professional development opportunities for teachers are all in place now. He said the Education Department also has adopted the legislature’s belief in the need for local flexibility.

“With local flexibility, our mantra is clearly robust accountability,” he said.

In regard to that, Paine said, the state school board has an accountability policy out on comment that for the first time would hold local school boards accountable for student achievement.

“We believe local school boards need to begin focusing on academic student achievement publicly at their board meetings and having discussions with their superintendents, with their principals and their teachers,” he said. “Those discussions and the transparency that comes from that will put the level of accountability in emphasis on academic achievement at each district level.”

In addition to low student achievement levels, legislators also have been concerned about a high rate of absenteeism in the public schools. Paine pointed out that 2019 was the first year for the use of West Virginia’s Balanced Scorecard as a part of the accountability system, and it was what exposed the problem with absenteeism. Some districts are out of compliance, he said, and the consequences of continuing to be out of compliance will accelerate.

“I think this is actually the first time that our state has had a stable accountability system in the past four or five years.” – Supt. Steve Paine

“I think this is actually the first time that our state has had a stable accountability system in the past four or five years,” Paine said.

That accountability is for student achievement, attendance and graduation rates, he said, and the Education Department also is placing much emphasis on teachers’ attendance.

“There’s a direct correlation between student attendance and teacher attendance,” Paine said. “Students in classrooms where teachers are absent miss more.”

One step he said he has taken is to start holding regular discussions with school district superintendents, as well as video conference calls with districts doing better than others to ask them what they are doing. He said the legislature helped to address teacher absenteeism this year by putting into in House Bill 206, the main education reform bill, financial incentives for teachers to miss no more than four days each school year. In addition, he said, some districts offer graduated incentives for attendance for up to $1,500.

“That seems to be working in some of our districts,” Paine said. What really helps is transparency from superintendents who expect employees to show up to work, he said, and principals are being told to step up their efforts.

Paine noted that it used to be that education employees could bank unused sick days and apply them to retirement, something he did himself.

“That was a very, very significant and generous benefit,” he said. “The benefit’s not there anymore, so we have new teachers entering the system who actually believe that the 15 days they receive are part of the benefit package, and they actually believe that they are entitled to use those days throughout the course of the year.”

The legislature last year also gave school districts more flexibility in funding partly in the hope that it would help them hire student support workers, including nurses, counselors and mental health professionals, so Carmichael wanted to know if districts are doing that. Paine said his department has surveyed each county and is compiling a report on it. Preliminary results show some districts have hired student support workers, he said. For example, Wayne County has hired 15 additional student support specialists. But Paine said other counties have used the money to pay down some of their overages for personnel outside the School Aid Formula.

Carmichael conceded that legislators did provide the flexibility for them to do that.

By Jim Wallace

A higher education official has told legislators that a new report shows West Virginia has much work to do in getting more high school graduates ready for college.

Chris Treadway, senior director of research and policy for the Higher Education Policy Commission, told the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability this week that the 2019 Academic Readiness Report shows only about 40 percent of graduates from West Virginia high schools were ready for college work immediately after high school. About three-quarters of them were ready in English language arts, he said, but far fewer were ready in math, based on their scores on the major college entrances tests, ACT and SAT.

“We know we have a challenge in math readiness, and that’s something we’re working hard in higher ed. to address.” – Chris Treadway

“We know we have a challenge in math readiness, and that’s something we’re working hard in higher ed. to address,” Treadway said. “It’s been a problem. It continues to be a problem. And we’re working closely with our partners in K-12 to address that issue.”

In the past few years, officials have seen minor fluctuations in the data but no significant growth, he said. A county-by-county analysis shows that at least half of the students from most counties – and as much as 90 percent from some counties – are going to be college ready for English, he said, but math readiness was different. Pocahontas County had the highest math readiness rate of 57.9 percent with Putnam County and Monongalia County close behind, he said.

Treadway said one way state colleges and universities have addressed the problem is by implementing co-requisite courses in which students get the remedial learning they need along with college-level learning that earns credits for them. Success rates in college have increased greatly as a result of that, he said.

“We know, if we want to improve math outcomes, we need a highly qualified pool of math teachers, and we know we suffer from a critical shortage of math teachers in West Virginia,” Treadway said.

Last year, the legislature changed the Underwood-Smith scholarship program to make it what is now the Underwood-Smith Teaching Scholars Program. The first round of applications for the program has just come in, so the system is in the initial review stage, Treadway said. The first 25 students in that program should be announced soon, so they can become highly qualified math teachers within a few years, he said.

The Department of Education also is working on other efforts to improve students’ readiness for college, he said.

By Jim Wallace

The opioid crisis, poverty and other social issues have caused many problems for West Virginia schools, but education and health care officials are working in different ways to address the needs of students, as those officials told members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education in a meeting leading up to the current legislative session.

Michele Blatt, assistant superintendent in the Education Department’s Division of Support and Accountability, reminded legislators that they gave the department $30.5 million for social and emotional supports in the schools, and it has many programs to do that. For example, she said, the department has hired 65 site coordinators for the Communities in Schools program.

“These are individuals whose sole purpose is to be in that [school] building and to make sure the students have what they need to be successful,” Blatt said. “They also work with the families to make sure students get to doctor’s appointments.”

By the end of this year, the program will be in 81 schools in 15 counties, she said. One participant has told her it should be a game-changer.

Federal funding is available for social and emotional supports, Blatt said. Previously it was tied to math and reading instruction, but the Every Student Succeeds Act makes it available for any need that can be backed by data, she said.

Another program she mentioned is Reclaim West Virginia, the department’s initiative with many partner organizations to address the trauma and mental health needs resulting from the opioid crisis. It’s currently in a pilot project in six Kanawha County schools, she said.

“Every child needs something different, so you have to have a lot of resources and a lot of things available based on what that student needs.” – Michele Blatt

Those were among many programs Blatt reviewed with legislators. “Every child needs something different, so you have to have a lot of resources and a lot of things available based on what that student needs,” she said.

Blatt said the department recently created the Chronic Absenteeism Task Force after the release of the Balanced Scorecard, which showed about 20 percent of students are chronically absent each year, to consider the effects of attendance on student achievement. Under the former federal No Child Left Behind program instituted under President George W. Bush, she said, no one cared if a student was absent as long as the student had an excuse.

“That’s kind of what’s gotten us into this mindset we have now, and we can’t teach our kids if they’re not in school,” Blatt said. Any absence, excused or unexcused, affects a student’s education, she said.

“Counties are definitely taking advantage of the flexibility that you gave them with this funding,” Blatt said. “We’ve seen some counties have hired personnel. Many have contracted services with these community agencies and the mental health providers in their areas. They’re using it for programs and trainings for their teachers.”

Some districts have hired fulltime personnel, others have plans to do so, and many have turned to contracted services, she said.

“Many of our counties were paying for counselors and nurses above the funding formula to try to meet the needs of their students,” Blatt said. “So with declining budgets and enrollment in the state, they were able to backfill and cover those positions with some of this funding.”

The department is working with the Department of Health and Human Resources to survey all districts, schools and communities to identify what supports are in the schools. Blatt concluded.

School-based health care grows.

On the subject of school-based health care, Sherri Ferrell, chief executive officer of the West Virginia Primary Care Association, said her organization represents 31 community health centers, known as federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), that serve more than 460,000 West Virginians, which is about a quarter of the state’s population. They provide care in 392 locations, including 179 school-based health centers in 40 counties, she said.

”Each health risk that can be removed has the potential to positively influence academic behaviors.” – John Kennedy

John Kennedy, school-based health coordinator for the association, said school-based health offers a great opportunity to affect schools and their communities. The more health risks students have, the less likely they are to succeed in school, he said.

”Each health risk that can be removed has the potential to positively influence academic behaviors,” Kennedy said. “School-based health centers remove many of these key health risks.”

The number of school-based health sites is growing because of the need for them, he said.

“We know that students who use primary care are more likely to use behavioral health and primary care more consistently over time, so they’re healthier students,” Kennedy said. School-based health centers reduce the number of emergency room visits, he said, and they improve attendance, behavior and coursework.

“It’s all about seat time,” he said. “The more we can have students in those seats, the greater the likelihood that they can learn.”

By Jim Wallace

In these days when many factors, including West Virginia’s opioid crisis, are placing pressures on students, the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Education are working to expand school mental health programs.

Christina Mullins, commissioner of DHHR’s Bureau for Behavioral Health, told the Joint Committee on Children and Families in a meeting leading up to the current legislative session that mental health issues can interrupt the learning process for students. She said her bureau looked at Medicaid claims for 2017 and learned that one in five kids on Medicaid was diagnosed with a behavioral disorder. More than one-third of kids in foster care – about 36 percent – had mental health conditions diagnosed prior to removal from their homes, she said.

“This means that, in a classroom of 25 kids, as many as five of those kids could have a mental health condition while they’re in the classroom,” Mullins said.

Schools need a continuum of mental health care, she said, and prevention is one of the most important components of such a school program. It focuses on helping individuals develop the knowledge, attitudes and skills they need to make good choices or change harmful behaviors, she said.

However, Mullins said, prevention is a long-term investment that tends to cost more than other types of interventions, and it takes longer to get the return on investment. “So sometimes it’s hard to prioritize that when you’re faced with a full-on crisis in front of you,” she said.

Good prevention programs address a variety of issues and conditions, Mullins said. They focus on communication, resilience, problem-solving, improved decision-making, positive peer relationships and family support, she said.

“Where we sometimes go sideways is that prevention and early intervention efforts are more effective when they are ongoing, evidence-based and implemented with fidelity, so scattershot approaches don’t necessarily work as well.” – Christina Mullins

“Where we sometimes go sideways is that prevention and early intervention efforts are more effective when they are ongoing, evidence-based and implemented with fidelity, so scattershot approaches don’t necessarily work as well,” Mullins said.

Some approaches might cause more harm if care isn’t taken, she said. They include fear tactics, one-and-done events, personal testimony, threats and gruesome graphics, she said.

Mullins said prevention works either by increasing protective factors, such as recognition of positive behaviors or resiliency, or decreasing risk factors, such as early initiation of substance abuse or problem behaviors.

“Expanded school mental health is based on the premise that more preventive and early intervention services correlate with fewer intensive intervention services for students,” she said.

Providing mental health services in schools is important because the schools are where the kids are, it’s cost effective, it removes barriers such as transportation, and it benefits the families, Mullins said.

As DHHR and the Department of Education work to expand school mental health services, she said, they are getting help from a steering committee of experts from across the state with technical assistance from Marshall University. Mullins said DHHR provides funding of about $30,000 per school, which just pays for a “sparkplug person” who believes in the program. Schools and community partners must work together to identify other funding, she said, and some schools have used very creative funding.

It is a cross-systems collaborative approach with many people working together because it can’t be just one person, she said. It is a multi-tiered system of support that connects students with home schools and their communities, she said, and community supports are important for schools.

“We really do emphasize the importance of implementing evidence-based services with fidelity, and they work on continuous quality improvement,” Mullins said. When problems are noticed, they can be headed off and reduced, so they are handled through preventive services rather than through intensive supports, she said.

“It’s not just having therapy in schools. It’s about classroom environment. It’s about greeting the kids at the beginning of the day. It is about the entire school. It’s involving the custodians all the way up to the principals. It is a school focus, and that is a way to instill a culture of change.” – Christina Mullins

Emphasizing that expanded school mental health must be a continuum of care, Mullins said, “It’s not just having therapy in schools. It’s about classroom environment. It’s about greeting the kids at the beginning of the day. It is about the entire school. It’s involving the custodians all the way up to the principals. It is a school focus, and that is a way to instill a culture of change.”

But it’s also responsive to the community’s needs and culture, she said, so no single expanded school mental health program looks like one in another school.

Four comprehensive behavioral health centers, two school systems, two licensed behavioral health centers and one federally qualified health center are the nine grantees that are helping to implement expanded school mental health in 40 schools in 20 counties, Mullins said. What is common among them is a person acting as a “sparkplug” to say it is important and lead change, she said.

Mullins said the Department of Education and DHHR also are working together to implement a strategic plan for substance use disorder. The Education Department is leading on a pilot program, the Reclaim West Virginia initiative, she said. Through that initiative, a pilot program will bring expanded school mental health to six more schools in Kanawha County, she said, but much more must be done to implement expanded mental health programs in all of the more than 700 public schools in the state.

“I’m very pleased with the work that we’ve done, but we still have a long way to go.” – Christina Mullins

“I’m very pleased with the work that we’ve done, but we still have a long way to go,” Mullins said.

One study found that expanded school mental health reduced the number of suspensions while treatment as usual increased the number of suspensions, she said.

In West Virginia in fiscal year 2019, more than 800 high-risk students benefitted from expanded school mental health experiences, she said. They received more than 10,000 intensive services, she said, and there were 155,158 prevention encounters and 15,795 early intervention encounters.

“That’s a pretty impressive reach for 40 schools,” Mullins said. About 74 percent of appointments occurred in schools, which reduced logistical challenges for parents and missed appointments for practitioners, she said, so it maximizes the practitioners’ time, which is important considering the shortage of mental health professionals.

For middle schools, 50 percent of those with expanded mental health exceeded state behavior standards, compared to 32 percent of all middle schools, Mullins said. For high schools, 33 percent of those with expanded school mental health exceeded state standards for four-year graduation rates, while 17 percent of all high schools did so, she said.

“So we know that the work that we are doing is making an impact, based on some of the data we are seeing,” Mullins said. “Improvement in mental health leads to improvement in behavior, learning and social skills, and school-based services increase access. However, mental health programs and services must be responsive to the needs identified by the community, built from a positive school climate, and delivered in a tiered intervention framework.”

Mullins said she would love to add more schools, but that is contingent on funding.

By Jim Wallace

The Department of Education thinks St. Albans High School has found a clever way to improve students’ performance, but legislators will have to change state law for that school to continue doing it and for other schools to have a chance to try it. What the school did was to reduce instructional time to get teachers more time for collaboration.

Jeff Kelley, principal of St. Albans High School, told members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education the change was an unexpected result of the 2014 chemical leak in the water system in the Kanawha Valley, as well as snow, which resulted in a loss of 17 school days. That worried him, he said, but not for long.

“In that year, we ended up having the highest test scores that we had ever had up to that year, and it caused me to step back and take a look at what we were doing,” Kelley said. “I started having this internal conversation about quality versus quantity.”

About the same time, the Education Department presented schools with the concept of “reimagining time,” which went along with the issue of quality versus quantity. His school applied to the department for a waiver to diminish the instructional time for students and increase collaboration time for teachers. The school then shaved five to six minutes off each class and created a daily 35-minute collaboration period for teachers.

“We are now in year four of that initiative, and during this time, all of our academic outcomes have improved.” – Jeff Kelley

“We are now in year four of that initiative, and during this time, all of our academic outcomes have improved,” Kelley said, adding the 35-minute daily collaboration model has allowed the school’s teachers to grow. “It’s really been a breath of fresh air for us.”

Science teachers have used their collaboration time to study challenge-based learning models, English and math teachers have used test data to develop lessons to address shortcomings, and health and physical education teachers have worked on body safety curriculum that came out of legislation from last year.

“If you ask teachers what they need, I guarantee almost every one of them will say they need more time to sit down and meet with other educators and talk about best practices,” Kelley said. “And that’s really where we’re starting to get right now, and we’re really pleased with the outcomes.”

The graduation rate at St. Albans hit 90 percent for the first time last year, he said, and the school’s assessment scores in English and math are among the top in the state. The class that will graduate this year will be the first group to have been under this schedule for four years, he said.

Clayton Burch, associate superintendent of the Department of Education, said the school’s approach is fundamentally different from what other schools have done and said Kelley was too modest about the results. He said the school’s discipline referrals have gone down drastically, and the average class size has been reduced from about 22 students to 18 students.

“He was able to offer more classes because his planning and his collaborative time are upfront,” Burch said. “So he is not, as a principal, building this crazy schedule throughout the day to meet the needs of adults. His schedule is to meet the needs of students, and that is fundamentally different.”

“Think about this: Adding 30 minutes on to a school day, how much instruction are we gaining? He took 30 minutes off and ended up being about three to five minutes of class. Three to five minutes – that’s not a lot – but what he gained was 35 minutes for his teachers to come together.” – Clayton Burch

Burch then told legislators: “Think about this: Adding 30 minutes on to a school day, how much instruction are we gaining? He took 30 minutes off and ended up being about three to five minutes of class. Three to five minutes – that’s not a lot – but what he gained was 35 minutes for his teachers to come together.”

Also, fundamentally different about the St. Albans system is that the principal and the teachers are in charge of it, Burch said. You cannot dictate collaborative planning time from the Department of Education, he said, because the principal and teachers must take ownership of it.

The teachers get about 6,000 minutes a year of collaborative planning time each year, he said, and they have time to plan every day.

St. Albans High School has been working with the new model on a pilot project approved by the state school board when the number of instructional minutes per day was a matter of state board policy. Since then, the legislature has put instructional time into law.

“So, we don’t believe the state board can continue to approve plans such as Jeff’s,” Burch said. Without a change in the law, he said, the only way for a school to adopt such a model might be to get the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability to grant a waiver.

Asked how changing the schedule decreased the average class size, Kelley said that was an unforeseen result. All the teacher planning is scheduled before the school day starts, he said, so now all 55 teachers are teaching all five periods of the day instead of having planning periods at different times of the day. Thus, he said, the students are distributed among 55 teachers each period instead of 45 teachers. “We just got lucky on that one,” he added.

The committee took no action on the recommendation to change state law on instructional minutes, but the presentation seemed to get the attention of legislators as they head into their 60-day regular session.

By Jim Wallace

A former college president is calling on legislators to help establish a training academy for teachers.

“Of all the multitude of problems that are out there, the common thing that we can attack right now is to better train teachers,” William Simmons, former president of Glenville State College, told the Joint Standing Committee on Education. “I don’t care what you have in a school. You can have an old school or a new school. If you don’t have good teachers and a good curriculum, you don’t have a school.”

Along with the training academy, he wants to increase accountability in the public education system. “We need to keep high expectations, knowing that not everyone is going to reach this goal,” he said. “We should build a castle up here in the air and then put the foundation under it.”

Simmons said he is working with West Virginia University President Gordon Gee to establish the teacher training academy. He said they just need the approval of the legislature.

But he didn’t limit his comments to the training academy. He criticized the state school board for a lack of clear direction and said one reason West Virginia ranks low in student achievement is that schools give achievement tests to cognitively impaired students. He said the state then averages the results of those students with those of other students. On why that is done, Simmons said, “The more needy students you have the more federal funding you get.”

On the teacher training academy, he said, West Virginia might work with neighboring states in a regional consortium to pool their resources together. He suggested looking to Arizona, Colorado and California for ideas that work.

“Let’s find something that’s working, and let’s try out West Virginia’s version of it,” Simmons said. “I talk to a lot of parents. They’re unhappy.”

Saying he didn’t get involved in the issue of whether West Virginia should have charter schools, he added, “But I will say one thing: Where there’s a vacuum and a need, there’s always a movement to fill it. The question is: Why were they needed – or are they? I’m an advocate of public education, and I don’t want to give up on it. And I think we need your help. If you will take the initiative – somebody has to step up.”

Simmons said he and Gee are willing to step up to push for the teacher training academy because not much can hurt them at their ages.

Revised program is to train teachers in subjects needed most.

Teacher training also was the issue at an earlier meeting of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability when members learned that West Virginia’s higher education system is using the newly revised Underwood-Smith Teaching Scholars Program to help put more critically needed teachers into public schools.

Matt Turner, vice chancellor for administration at the Higher Education Planning Commission, said the previous version of the program was missing out on training teachers for the critical areas of math, science and special education. He said the old program was just a grant.

“It’s a wonderful thing, but it didn’t have any special meaning,” Turner said.

The new Underwood-Smith Teaching Scholars Program is different, he said. “This is now our most attractive state financial aid program,” he said. “It’s $10,000 per year, and that may be stacked with other programs, including the Promise Scholarship or the Higher Education Grant Program, which is needs based, or Pell grants.”

“Let’s find something that’s working, and let’s try out West Virginia’s version of it.” – William Simmons

Turner said the new program potentially could cover the full costs of teacher education programs. It is open to only 25 students per year and, unlike other programs, it is open to non-resident students, he said. It also has a mentoring component in which each student is paired with a highly qualified teacher in the field, he said, and it has a five-year service component. The program was modeled after an effective program in New York, he said.

The biggest challenge is getting the word out, Turner said. The application launched in early November, but within the first two weeks, 188 applications came in, including two from outside the state, he said. HEPC was working on a marketing program, he said.

Turner said it will take a while to see how effective the program is, but when fully implemented, it should produce 100 new teachers in math and science.

“We’re really excited that these are teaching scholars. It’s not just a grant. It’s not just a scholarship. This is a whole program that surrounds the financial aid that comes with it.” – Matt Turner

“We’re really excited that these are teaching scholars,” he said. “It’s not just a grant. It’s not just a scholarship. This is a whole program that surrounds the financial aid that comes with it.”

“The statistics show that, if children aren’t reading on grade level by the end of third grade, the likelihood they will ever reach that grade-level proficiency diminishes each year.” – Monica Della Mea

Saying it’s like an Americorps for teachers, Turner said, “We want them to be committed to teaching here and want to do this.” He added, “Our goal is not to pick and choose winners. It’s to get the winners to come in and teach in West Virginia.”

By Jim Wallace

An Education Department official has told legislators that West Virginia is making progress in improving literacy among students by getting to them at earlier ages.

Monica Della Mea, executive director of the Office of Early and Elementary Learning, told members of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability at a meeting leading up to the current legislative session about the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, which the department has been working on for five years.

State code previously called for third-grade and eighth-grade literacy, but that is too late in the academic process, she said, so now it’s a birth-through-third-grade approach. She said it involves high-quality classroom instruction, school readiness, establishing early attendance habits and access to extended-day and extended-year programs.

“We know that all those things coupled together could help close the literacy achievement gap,” Della Mea said. “The statistics show that, if children aren’t reading on grade level by the end of third grade, the likelihood they will ever reach that grade-level proficiency diminishes each year.”

The state’s efforts have been based on local flexibility with 75 percent of the allocation in the line-item of $5.7 million from the state budget going directly to county school districts, she said. Each county has a literacy team of educators, parents, central office staff, librarians, organizations and other partners, she said.

Della Mea said the results have been growth in the number of certain students achieving the 50th percentile in reading. She said fourth-graders in 2017-2018 went from 38 percent of them at that level to 45 percent of them at that level as fifth-graders in 2018-2019. She said the department wants to explore doing more with academic coaching and instructional supports.

Research has shown that reading gaps start early on in kindergarten, she said, and it’s important to start early to close those gaps because so many children come with social and emotional needs and other forms of trauma. She said the department wants to focus on professional learning and technical assistance to make sure teachers have their needs met at the local level.

A related initiative Della Mea mentioned is to continue to promote access to books in the home. Currently, 47 districts participate in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program, which provides free books to children from birth to age five, she said, and the goal is to get all 55 districts enrolled in the program.

West Virginia faces many challenges to improving student literacy. Della Mea said the state has the fourth-highest poverty rate in the nation, it leads the nation in opioid-related deaths, and infants born from 2010 through 2018 with neonatal abstinence syndrome increased from 21.1 to 50.6 per every 1,000 live births. Those children in the initial wave are in the second or third grade now, she said, and many more will enter the education system in the years ahead.

It’s important to focus on the whole child, Della Mea said, so the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading includes focus on social, emotional and physical development of children.

By Jim Wallace

In addition to wanting West Virginia’s students to perform better in school, legislators have been interested in making sure they are ready for college or careers after high school. On that latter topic, officials from the Education Alliance told members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education in a meeting leading up to the current legislative session about what her organization is doing to strengthen students’ career readiness.

Amelia Courts, chief executive officer of the Education Alliance, said West Virginia must make sure students are ready for the careers of today and for the careers of the future, so it’s necessary to strengthen students’ awareness of the opportunities and build their skills. She said there are four trends in career readiness:

  1. The need for more preparation in STEM (science, technology engineering and mathematics) will only grow.
  2. As many students as possible should achieve some sort of post-secondary degree because about 65 percent of all jobs require some such degree.
  3. An equity gap must close because certain types of students are underrepresented and have less access to career readiness. They include females in STEM fields. Rural students also have challenges in career readiness, so states like Louisiana are developing online courses to give them access.
  4. Students need to be aware of the changing nature of work in the future. It is estimated that 85 percent of the jobs that will be available in 2030 don’t exist today.

Courts said the Education Alliance convened a meeting of educators, business leaders, parents and students in 2018 to develop a profile of a graduate. It covers three areas:

  • World Class Knowledge, which includes: reading and math; essential knowledge of the arts, social studies, STEM, and world languages; career awareness; and financial literacy
  • College and Career Skills, which include: verbal and non-verbal communication; teamwork and collaboration; innovative problem solving and creativity; organization and self-direction; and career appropriate technical and computer skills
  • Life Characteristics, which include: readiness to learn, fail, and improve; being flexible and adaptable; being self-aware and confident; being inclusive and open-minded; having a strong work ethic, perseverance, and grit; civic engagement; and having habits of wellness

The major factor affecting a person’s career pathway is experience, Courts said, and there a gap in providing experiences must be addressed. That’s a case for high school internships, she said.

Olivia McCuskey, director of strategic engagement for the Education Alliance, said her group has borrowed from Indiana the concept for the West Virginia High School Internship Program. She said alliance did a pilot this past summer with three partners: Cabell-Huntington Hospital, Toyota and Appalachian Power. They represent the three major industries in the state: health care, manufacturing and energy, she said.

All three companies have signed on to host interns again in the summer of 2020, McCuskey said. It is a four-week paid internship for high school students, who work 40 hours a week for four weeks, she said. Barring illness, they are expected to be at work every day on time, she said.

The program focuses on rising juniors and seniors, so they have at least one year after the summer internship to take what they’ve learned in soft skills and potential career pathway to forge their path in school, McCuskey said. The employer does physical technical training with the students during the first day on the job, she said.

The businesses want to focus on career awareness, McCuskey said, and each one structures the internship to suit its needs. Appalachian Power has two tracks: the engineering track and the systems track. Cabell-Huntington and Toyota have students go through all phases of their businesses. The students are expected to give final presentations at the end of the four weeks, McCuskey said, and upon completion of the internship program, each student receives three hours of community and technical college credit.

The companies’ human resources directors draft the job descriptions, she said, and the alliance works with schools to get students to apply for the internships. McCuskey said the program doesn’t target the top students but rather middle-range students who might not have clear-cut pathways after high school. This allows them to see their options, she said. The alliance does the first round of screening and then passes the cream of the crop on to the businesses, she said. Prior to their first day of work, the alliance gives the students a day of training on what it means to have a job, she said, and the alliance also works with them at the end of each week.

The businesses rated 80 percent of the participants as high-quality future employees, McCuskey said. In Indiana, 90 percent of the businesses requested additional interns for the following year, and almost 40 percent of employers reported higher five-year retention among employees hired through the internships. Of the students who participated, 70 percent said it changed their career plans and 100 percent said they would recommend the program to a friend. Also, 100 percent of the businesses saw it as a valid workforce development strategy.

“They see it as a direct pipeline of high school students into their workforce.” – Olivia McCuskey

“They see it as a direct pipeline of high school students into their workforce,” McCuskey said.

The Education Alliance is looking to expand the program statewide, she said. So far, 10 businesses are confirmed for the summer of 2020. The screening and interviewing will be done in April. Intern training by the alliance will be done in May. The four-week intern process will occur in June and July.

Courts said Delaware was an early leader in 2014 in establishing such internships. It identified 10 career pathways and aligned coursework for them, she said. Iowa passed a bill called the Future Ready Iowa Act in 2018 to strengthen workforce development, and it included a summer youth internship program, she said. The law provided funding, structure and policy to support high-quality internships, she said.

Internships are just one part of a comprehensive approach for career readiness, Courts said. Another is providing incentives for industry credentials, she said. Some states have provided additional funding for every student who graduates with a high school diploma and an industry credential, she said. Internship opportunities also should be provided at smaller businesses, she suggested. Also, she said, dual-credit or early college credit can really help inspire students and provide steps for achieving their future careers.

By Jim Wallace

As legislators have grappled with the state budget each year, they have pushed for greater efficiency from the public school system. Often they have called on school districts to save money by sharing services, but it hasn’t always been clear how much sharing goes on, so the Joint Standing Committee on Education asked for a report on that.

Amy Willard, executive director of the Education Department’s Office of School Finance, told legislators that county school boards have been able to achieve greater efficiency through shared service agreements among each other and through education service cooperatives. State code gives them authority to enter into those agreements to improve their instructional needs, employ specialists in fields of academic study or for support functions or services in the field, facilitate coordination and cooperation, and reduce administrative or operational costs, she said.

Willard asked county boards to send her examples of shared service agreements and received these:

  • Hampshire County shares a technology systems specialist and a physical therapist with the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind, and they are considering a similar arrangement for a school psychologist.
  • Grant, Hardy and Pendleton counties share a truancy diversion specialist and an Options Pathways instructor.
  • Marion County shares an audiologist with Barbour, Harrison, Taylor and Tucker counties.
  • Marion County also provides Medicaid billing services to Barbour, Doddridge, Gilmer, Harrison, Lewis, Monongalia, Preston, Taylor and Tucker counties.
  • Harrison County shares a WVEIS support specialist with Marion, Monongalia, Upshur, Taylor, Gilmer, Randolph and Barbour counties.
  • Harrison County shares a safety director with Lewis County.
  • Upshur County shares an orientation and mobility specialist with Barbour, Doddridge, Harrison, Lewis, Marion, Monongalia, Preston, Randolph and Taylor counties.
  • Upshur and Lewis counties share an Options Pathways instructor.
  • Kanawha County provides Medicaid billing services for Boone, Putnam and Clay counties.
  • Putnam County provides e-rate services for Kanawha, Boone and Clay counties.
  • Wood County provides Medicaid billing services for Jackson, Tyler, Calhoun and Ritchie counties.
  • Marshall County does a substitute callout system that it shares with Hancock, Brooke, Ohio and Wetzel counties.
  • Wirt County shares a special education intervention specialist with Tyler, Ritchie, Gilmer, Pleasants and Calhoun counties.
  • Wirt County shares a childhood nutrition director with Roane and Calhoun counties.
  • Taylor County shares a computer technician with Lewis County.
  • Roane County provide bus driver training services to Jackson County.

“So we do have a lot of sharing of services going on across the state.” – Amy Willard

“So we do have a lot of sharing of services going on across the state,” Willard concluded.

In addition, she said, a few education service cooperatives have replaced the Regional Education Service Agencies (RESAs) that were phased out in the past few years. Three ESCs are operating; the Eastern Panhandle Instructional Cooperative (EPIC), the Mountain State Educational Service Cooperative (MSESC) and the Southern Educational Services Cooperative (SESC). EPIC serves the former RESA 8 counties and provides services to other counties as requested. SESC serves former RESA 1 and RESA 4 counties and provides services to other counties as requested. MSESC mainly serves the former RESA 2 counties but also provides services to other counties, as requested.

By Jim Wallace

Education Department officials say they’re doing what they can to follow a law requiring cameras to be installed in certain special education classrooms, but at least one legislator has expressed impatience with the progress.

In recent months, when legislators asked about the cameras, which are required under legislation approved last year, department officials expressed uncertainty about how much it would cost to install the cameras in schools across the state. When the Joint Committee on Technology returned to the issue at a meeting leading up to the current legislative session, Associate Supt. Clayton Burch said Kanawha County had gone forward with installing the cameras and found the cost to be about $3,600 per classroom. He said the department didn’t want to underprice the costs because of concerns about “terabyte issues” for storing the recorded videos. About four to six terabytes of storage will be needed per classroom, he said, and classrooms that are moveable will have to have a mechanism for lockable storage.

The department wants to work with the districts to get the best prices possible over as many classrooms as possible, Burch said.

“One of the challenges we’re going to be faced with here is that we’re going to have schools, whether we like it or not, in your own neighborhoods where they’re going to be miles apart and one school is going to have five, six, seven self-contained classrooms and another school is going to have one.” – Clayton Burch

“One of the challenges we’re going to be faced with here is that we’re going to have schools, whether we like it or not, in your own neighborhoods where they’re going to be miles apart and one school is going to have five, six, seven self-contained classrooms and another school is going to have one,” he said. “So we really need to help those districts fill those gaps with how they’re going to afford the differences within those schools.”

Burch also noted that there was some disagreement over when blurring technology must be used whenever parents or others would view the videos. He cited a 2017 letter from the chief privacy officer of the U.S. Department of Education that says parents of students involved in an incident have the affirmative right under FERPA to review a video of the incident. Heather Hutchins, general counsel for the West Virginia Department of Education, said that seems to mean parents have the right to see a video if faces cannot be blurred or it would be too burdensome to do so.

But in regard to whether public schools will meet the requirement to install video cameras in all self-contained special education classrooms, Burch noted that it depends on the cost and how much funding the legislature appropriates for it. He compared it to the requirement in a statute that requires one school nurse for every 1,000 students.

“We’ve never met it,” he said. “With appropriations, we’ve never been able to meet that, and I’m not using that to say we can’t meet this. I think we do need to help districts with their Safe and Supportive School funds decide the priorities because we do have a lot of priorities they must meet. But I don’t think there’s any excuse for us not moving forward with the purchase and installation of the cameras where we can.”

Burch said the department will report back to legislators on how many classrooms are set up with video cameras by the end of the 2020 legislative session. He added that a new accountability policy out for comment would allow the department to do an efficiency audit of everything schools are required to do, so the department could use such audits as an enforcement mechanism when requirements are not implemented. However, at least one member of the committee, Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, wasn’t satisfied with such assurances.

“I think that we in the legislature take this exceptionally seriously and that we expect when we pass a law of this nature that it be treated as law.” – Delegate Daniel Linville

“I think that we in the legislature take this exceptionally seriously and that we expect when we pass a law of this nature that it be treated as law,” he said. “And 54,000 West Virginians that I represent didn’t send I and my colleagues in the 16th Delegate District here so that I could pass suggestions. And I wasn’t sent here to pass good ideas. We were sent here to make law, and when we make laws, we expect them to be treated as law.”

Linville said legislators had heard over three interim meetings why cameras can’t be installed in all self-contained special education classrooms. He said he and his colleagues were tired of that. He then made a motion that the legislature should pass legislation to allow the House or Senate to petition the judicial branch to have the executive branch “treat laws as law.” But instead of taking up that motion right then, the chairman said it could be considered at the committee’s next meeting, which was scheduled for Tuesday, January 7, but that meeting was cancelled.

Burch responded, “The funds have been distributed. I think it’s our responsibility to work with every one of those districts to decide if the funds were adequate.” He also reiterated that the Education Department has an obligation to come back to legislators to say if there are any gaps where cameras are not installed and whether that is because of a funding issue.

At a previous meeting, Hutchins told legislators the new law requires that a school district must provide notices of the cameras prior to installation to parents, the school board and employees who work in those classrooms. The law requires both audio and video to be recorded, she said, and the entirety of a classroom must be seen and heard on recordings with the exception of areas used for changing students’ clothes or using the bathroom.

Recordings must be maintained for three months, Hutchins said. After that period, the recordings must be rendered irretrievable unless they are subject of special requests, she said. Other provisions she mentioned include:

  • The cameras cannot be monitored continuously.
  • The recordings cannot be used for a teacher’s evaluation.
  • They can be used only for the promotion of the “health, well-being and safety of students” receiving education services in the self-contained classrooms.
  • They are confidential under the terms of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
  • The recordings cannot be used in disciplinary proceedings against other students unless their actions qualify as incidents under the terms of the law. An incident is defined as “a suspicion of bullying, abuse or neglect of a child or harm to a public school employee.”
  • A parent who believes an incident has occurred must ask to view the recording.
  • A school has seven days to review a recording and determine whether to grant the request.
  • When such a request is granted, the identity of any student not involved in the incident must be blurred.

By Jim Wallace

The outlook for the Public Employees Insurance Agency for the next fiscal year looks good, but some legislators are worried about what will happen in the years ahead.

PEIA intends to go into the fiscal year that will begin in July with no increases in premiums and no cuts in benefits. That’s partly because the agency can use a $105 million special rainy day fund established by the legislature to help PEIA avoid problems that led to rising insurance costs being a major issue in the statewide teachers’ strike in 2018.

When PEIA Director Ted Cheatham explained the agency’s status to members of the Select Committee on PEIA, Seniors and Long-term Care, Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood, asked what might happen if the agency would pay down the rainy day fund.

“I will be here asking for more revenue, or we’ll be reducing benefits,” Cheatham said.

“Isn’t that the reason we got in a financial bind here a few years go by failure to increase rates and going in and raiding the rainy day fund until we depleted it and got into somewhat of a situation that has taken us probably the last five years to get out of that hole?” Kelly asked.

Although Cheatham clarified that the special rainy day fund is new and wasn’t available to the agency in the past, he said PEIA did have to spend down its reserves in prior years. To that, Kelly said, “What I see here is we’re starting to turn into a path similar to what we were on here a few years go. If we’re not going to increase our rates and we’re going to continue to deplete our rainy day fund, we’re going to be right back where we started from, and I don’t really want to go that direction.”

“We need $50 million a year to keep this plan sustainable at the current benefits,” Cheatham said, repeating what he has told legislators many times in the past.

Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, also expressed concern about PEIA’s long-term sustainability. “What happens when that rainy day fund is empty if the legislature doesn’t replenish it?” he asked. It was then that Cheatham said he would have to ask for more funding or cut benefits.

Swartzmiller wondered what had happened to the PEIA Task Force that Gov. Jim Justice set up to make recommendations about stabilizing PEIA’s finances. The task force held meetings over several months, mainly in 2018, but it hasn’t met since last January. Instead of adopting recommendations from the task force, Justice simply asked for the legislature to put $150 million into the new rainy day fund. Legislators instead put $105 million into it.

“It sounds like this was their fix – just to throw money into it to get a couple of years down the road.” – Delegate Randy Swartzmiller

“What I see here is we’re starting to turn into a path similar to what we were on here a few years go. If we’re not going to increase our rates and we’re going to continue to deplete our rainy day fund, we’re going to be right back where we started from, and I don’t really want to go that direction.” – Delegate John Kelly

If the task force is no longer meeting, Swartzmiller said, “It sounds like this was their fix – just to throw money into it to get a couple of years down the road.”

One advantage of the PEIA rainy day fund is the agency can draw on it for funding without triggering an 80/20 requirement that says employees should pay 20 percent of their premiums while the agencies that employ them should provide the other 80 percent of the premiums. When that requirement is triggered, it means that more funding from the state results in higher premiums for employees.

During the legislative meeting, Cheatham also noted that the number of PEIA members switching from active employment to retirement has declined. In recent years, about 3,000 workers had retired annually, he said, but only about 2,500 did so this year. That could be a result of two straight years in which the legislature has approved 5 percent pay raises for teachers and other workers.

PEIA board approves no premium increases or benefit cuts.

Cheatham’s meeting with legislators came after the PEIA Finance Board at its latest meeting quickly approved a proposal for health care coverage for state workers, teachers and other public employees for the fiscal year that will begin next July. Members took only about seven minutes for the meeting in which they approved PEIA’s insurance plan – and that included four minutes of comments from Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.

Unlike in previous years, when Lee and other representatives of employees complained about premium costs and other problems they saw with PEIA’s coverage, Lee had only thanks for the approval of a plan that includes almost no additional costs for most teachers and other school workers. He was grateful for the second straight year that PEIA is raising its salary tiers that determine premium costs for employees, so teachers and others will not be penalized for pay raises legislators approved earlier this year.

“There are some this year that will see an increase, but it’s no fault of anyone except for the fact that math and special ed. teachers will get a pay increase of three steps.” – Dale Lee

“There are some this year that will see an increase, but it’s no fault of anyone except for the fact that math and special ed. teachers will get a pay increase of three steps,” Lee said. “There’s no way you can figure all that out.”

Because many schools have had trouble filling positions for math and special education teachers, the legislature made those positions more attractive by allowing those teachers to jump up three salary steps, which otherwise are based on years of experience and level of education.

Lee said school service personnel could actually see a decrease in their premiums because they received smaller raises than teachers and might move into lower salary tiers for premiums after the tier levels are raised.

However, Lee still expressed concern not with the current outlook for PEIA but for its future. Just two years ago, the PEIA Finance Board faced the prospect of reducing PEIA benefits in lieu of being able to raise premium costs, and the cost of health insurance was one of the major reasons West Virginia teachers and school service workers staged a statewide strike in 2018. Because of that, a task force that Lee served on met several times and came up with a plan to establish long-term fiscal stability for PEIA, but legislators did not pass a bill to implement the plan. He urged the Finance Board to support such a move to establish long-term stability, although no board member reacted to his call during today’s meeting.

“If you look three, four, five years down the road, we’re going to be in the same shape we were.” – Dale Lee

Without such a move, Lee warned, “If you look three, four, five years down the road, we’re going to be in the same shape we were.”

Urging further exploration of long-term stability, he said, “It’s something that has to be done. We have educators leaving in droves across the state.” He added that, despite several efforts by the state to attract and retain teachers, West Virginia public schools still have more than 700 positions without certified teachers.

“This is something that we can solve in the future,” Lee said. “It is going to be a cost to all of us.”

The plan approved by the PEIA Finance Board was presented at several public hearings around the state in November. At those meetings, PEIA leaders said they expect to spend about $100 million in reserves over two years to prevent premiums from increasing or benefits from being cut back.

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.