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Delegate Westfall, Superintendent Hess craft bills to help state schools

Staff report

Jackson Newspapers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — THE ISSUE: Delegate Steve Westfall and Superintendent of Schools Blaine Hess have collaborated to craft several legislative bills aimed at improving schools locally and statewide.

LOCAL IMPACT: Many of the bills are inspired to combat challenging issues for Jackson County school system, but they will benefit schools across the state of West Virginia.

Delegate Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, said several bills he has worked on with Jackson County Schools Superintendent Blaine Hess will not only help local schools this academic year, but all schools statewide.

Westfall, who serves on the Education Committee in the House of Delegates, said for the past few years he has gotten together with Superintendent Hess to brainstorm ways the Legislature can help improve the local and state education system.

“Superintendent Hess and I get together each year before the session and go over any problems they have and ways the Legislature can help improve operations in the school system,” Westfall said.

He said while many of the bills are inspired to combat issues that have been challenges in the Jackson County school system, they will benefit school systems across the state.

“These are Jackson County ideas, but they’re going to help all 55 counties in the state,” Westfall said.

The first key collaboration was House Bill 2632, which passed during the 2015 legislative session. This bill exempted school instructional materials from state Purchasing Division requirements.

“This change in law permitted Jackson County Schools to use certain technology funds, provided by the state, to purchase Apple MacBooks and iPads for use in the classroom,” Hess said.

Hess said Westfall was instrumental in the development and passage of House Bill 2632. He said the bill is now helping expand technology access to students across the school system.

“Jackson County now provides a MacBook to all high school students and is in the process of expanding iPad availability in elementary and middle schools,” Hess said.

During the 2017 legislative session, Westfall and Hess collaborated on three key pieces of legislation that will help state schools.

The first was House Bill 2494, which removed the requirement that school report cards be mailed directly to the parents of each child enrolled in school. Instead, schools can now simply upload report cards online, without having to print or mail them.

Delegate Westfall’s efforts have brought reporting school information into the 21st century,” Hess said. “The previous law was written before the state and school districts had the ability to provide quality data to parents through the internet. Now parents and community members can look up current school data online at any time rather than receiving outdated information in the mail.”

Westfall said this change will free up time and resources for teachers and staff.

“They can spend time doing things they need to do besides stuffing envelopes and preparing those report cards,” Westfall said. “This simple change could amount to $5,000 a year in cost savings for Jackson County that can now be used for other needs.”

Westfall and Hess also worked on legislation that was amended into Senate Bill 231 that gave counties more flexibility in how they manage Medicaid billing for certain services and programs provided in schools.

Westfall said prior to this bill, schools were having to bill for every service provided, sometimes spending more money on billing for the service than the total they were billing to recover.

Now they can pick and choose which services are beneficial for them to bill for.

“Medicaid dollars go to pay for aides and programs for special needs students, and we were losing money on some of the billing for this,” Westfall said.

“The billing of Medicaid for some services provided to students is so cumbersome that the reimbursement received by the school system doesn’t pay for the time and effort it takes to submit the billing,” Hess said. “This change allows more time to be devoted to teaching students.”

The third collaboration was House Bill 2702, which tightened the definition of an “excused absence” for truancy purposes. Westfall said he and Hess worked with the local truancy officers, magistrates and judges on this bill to help reduce truancy rates in schools.

“When kids aren’t in school, they don’t learn,” Westfall said.

“By tightening the definition of an excused absence, student attendance rates will improve,” Hess said. “Regular school attendance is a key factor in student success in school.”

All three of these bills passed the Legislature this year and were signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice. Each went into effect before the beginning of the current school year.

Westfall and Hess have already started having meetings to brainstorm ideas for bills to introduce in the 2018 legislative session. Westfall said Jackson County is fortunate to have Superintendent Hess working to improve the school system.

“Superintendent Hess is recognized and respected statewide as for his knowledge and ideas,” Westfall said. “The reforms we’ve worked on are not only helping here in our county, but helping teachers, students and school personnel statewide, and I look forward to continuing that collaboration into the future”

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