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Justice targets education “bureaucrats,” but plan not yet released

By RYAN QUINN

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — At least as far as education goes, Gov. Jim Justice’s inauguration speech Monday was surprising — given the fact he was short on specifics during his campaign. 

“Today, I have an education plan right here,” the Democrat said, holding up a blue booklet, “that I’m going to submit immediately for people to review. It’s going to be the elimination of a bunch of unnecessary agencies, it’s going to be a look at education in a different way that has never been looked at for a long, long, long time.”

Releasing the plan “immediately” apparently didn’t mean Monday, nor Tuesday, when the Gazette-Mail — and apparently others — requested it. 

“We’ll get it finalized, and that’s when we’ll put it out there,” Butch Antolini, Justice’s communications director, said Tuesday, after Justice press secretary Grant Herring didn’t respond to requests Monday.

“We’ve had a number of requests for that, and it’s being worked on,” Antolini said. 

He said Justice chief of staff Nick Casey was working on it, but didn’t have a date for when it would be released. 

The heads of the West Virginia Senate, House of Delegates and Board of Education said late Tuesday that they haven’t yet seen the plan nor heard specifics from it. Regardless, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said they liked what they heard during the speech. 

“I was glad to hear him talk about his desire to give more autonomy and local control to our teachers and principals, and that’s something we’ve been very interested in pursuing this upcoming [legislative] session,” Armstead said. 

“It’s a breath of fresh air that he’s ready to take on the entrenched bureaucracy around the West Virginia Department of Education,” Carmichael said, “and he’s going to find a very receptive Legislature.” 

Kanawha County school board member Becky Jordon, a member of Justice’s public education transition policy committee, hasn’t seen the plan. Neither, as of earlier this week, had Tom Campbell — another member of the policy committee and a state school board member from Greenbrier County, where Justice makes his home and owns The Greenbrier resort. 

Justice also took time out of his roughly 20-minute speech to say this about education: “In education today, our teachers, like it or not like it, are underpaid. Now, we’ve got to do something about it.”

And he said this, to applause: “We’ve got to get the bureaucrats out of the way.” 

And this, to applause and at least one whistle: “We’ve got to worry about our kids getting an A-F, versus our schools getting an A-F.” 

Several people interviewed Tuesday interpreted that as a swipe against the state’s A-F grading system for entire schools.

The system gave its first grades out this year — largely based on standardized test scores. 

Justice also said, “We’ve got to listen to the people that are on the ground, instead of trying to administer from Charleston when we don’t have a clue what’s going on,” and alleged that there were 130 “bureaucrats” overseeing 500,000 students around 1980, yet now there are about “10 times as many bureaucrats,” despite enrollment dropping below 300,000. 

“How can it possibly be? How can it possibly work?” Justice asked.

Terry Harless, the state education department’s chief financial officer, said Tuesday that he didn’t know exactly how Justice came up with his numbers and said he didn’t think anyone at his department has yet seen Justice’s plan. 

Harless said late Tuesday that he has numbers going back to 1985, when what’s often considered the headquarters of the education department, Building 6 of the state Capitol Complex in Charleston, had 284 employees, 42 more than there were as of Nov. 30, 2016. 

Harless said you could add things like the 246 employees in “institutional education” programs provided at places like adult prisons and juvenile justice centers, and the 459 Regional Education Service Agency workers, and the 158 Schools for the Deaf and the Blind workers, and other things, to bring the total to more than 1,129 as, of Nov. 30, 2016, but those numbers include teachers and other nonadministrator workers. 

Beverly Kingery, a state school board member from Kanawha County and a former education department employee who oversaw a federally funded program, said many education department positions are federally mandated and fully federally funded, and she also noted that education is now involving a lot of things that communities and homes used to provide. 

“We’re feeding children so they can be healthy and learn better, and just a lot of facts that people never think about,” Kingery said. 

“We are looking forward to working with the new governor,” said Mike Green, president of the state school board. “Clearly, a lot of these things [in Justice’s speech] we have heard before, and we would be happy to address them with him when we get an audience with the governor.” 

So what education “agencies” is Justice planning to cut? 

Does he mean Regional Education Service Agencies — those eight multi-county organizations that are supposed to aid county school systems and have been debated year after year, including in the wake of a Legislative Auditor’s Office report released last month that recommended taking away all RESAs’ “autonomy and independence?”

Does he mean the West Virginia Center for Professional Development, a state educator training agency that’s not under the main education department and saw its state funding cut by about a third from last fiscal year to this one

Does he mean merging entire county public school systems — as Jordon, the Kanawha school board member, has suggested — or eliminating entire colleges? 

“I was on a county board for 20 years, and I know the counties around where I live have cut back tremendously on county staff,” state school board member Jim Wilson said. 

Antolini said Tuesday that he wouldn’t provide specifics beyond what was in Monday’s speech. 

“He’s got some time before the State of the State [address on Feb. 8],” Antolini said. “And we’re working on the legislative agenda right now, and as the pieces of that are finalized they’ll be announced.” 

“He literally held up a blue folder,” another state board member, Bill White, said of Justice’s speech, saying, “I was probably as surprised as you were.” 

“He did hold up a fairly comprehensive binder,” Carmichael said. 

Antolini said the plan hadn’t been shared with lawmakers in even a preliminary manner. 

“I didn’t know he was going to say what he was going to say about A-F, but it’s a major problem in the system today, in my opinion, and it’s also in the opinion of his transition team,” said Campbell, the state board member on the transition policy committee. 

Campbell said he previously supported the A-F system to grade entire schools, but turned against it after a meeting of the policy committee.

“I didn’t realize how disruptive it would be to the system, and I’m not sure anybody did, but sometimes we make mistakes,” Campbell said. 

He said the system seems to be hurting morale among teachers who don’t control many aspects that affect student test scores. 

“We need to listen to people in the [school] districts, and when they say A-F is not working, then, in my opinion, A-F is not working,” Campbell said. 

Green noted that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the Democrat who preceded Justice in office, suggested the state school board adopt A-F, and Green said he hopes that “the Governor’s Office will give it a chance, and we always look to find ways to improve it over time.”

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