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Justice unveils education bill

By RYAN QUINN

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice wants to eliminate an agency that reviews public schools and public school systems, nix the eight multi-county Regional Education Service Agencies, remove the mandate for schools to have 180 separate “instructional days” and erase the requirement that the School Building Authority consider “economies of scale” among the “objective criteria” for choosing which public school construction and renovation projects to fund.

Those and more of Justice’s education plans were revealed Thursday with the filing of his Senate Bill 420.

“West Virginia’s students and teachers are being crushed by a boulder of bureaucracy in Charleston,” Justice said in a Thursday afternoon news release that included “Shatter the Bureaucracy in Charleston” among its bold font.

“Our local school districts and parents have lost control of what’s going on in the classroom,” he said. “My plan will transform our public schools into a world-class education system that gives all of our students a shot at success and allows our teachers the freedom to teach. Charleston thinks it knows what’s best for our kids, and after meeting with educators and parents around the state it’s as clear as day that the bureaucrats have no clue about what’s really going on.”

He said “it’s time to restructure and rebuild our school system from the bottom up.”

Deputy State Schools Superintendent Cindy Daniel said she first got to review the bill Wednesday, but she wasn’t involved in its writing and she didn’t know whether anyone else at the state Department of Education was involved.

“I’m still reviewing the bill, so I really don’t want to comment until I’ve had time to thoroughly review it,” Daniel said when asked what she supported or opposed in the bill.

Alongside getting rid of the Office of Education Performance Audits — an agency under the state Board of Education that sends reviewers into schools to assess factors including their principals’ leadership, their teaching of statewide education standards and their ability to keep students safe — the bill also would change laws regarding the instances in which the state school board takes control of county public school systems away from their locally elected school board members.

Justice’s news release said he intends to limit state school board intervention “to only the most extraordinary or dire circumstances.”

The bill also would implement Justice’s previously suggested pay raise for classroom teachers and his previously suggested elimination of state general revenue fund dollars for RESAs, which are supposed to aid county public school systems and have helped them through things like cooperative purchasing and allowing counties to share specialized personnel like speech language pathologists.

Regarding RESAs, the newly introduced bill actually would go further than just eliminating state general revenue fund money for them. It would completely abolish RESAs after July 1.

A recent legislative audit that recommended stripping “all autonomy and independence” from the RESAs and transferring the agencies’ power and employees to the Department of Education did note that RESAs received over $52.5 million in fiscal year 2014-15: $16.8 million from county reimbursements, $15.4 million from federal grants, $13.4 million from state grants, $3.4 million from “other revenues” and only $3.6 million from state aid.

The bill would establish a new County Superintendents’ Advisory Council, which would involve all 55 county public school system superintendents meeting to divide the state into four pieces. The bill says the superintendents in each quadrant “shall meet as necessary to identify coordination and cooperation in areas of service to reduce administrative and/or operational costs, including the consolidation of administrative, coordinating, and other county level functions into shared functions to promote the efficient administration and operation of the public school systems.”

The bill clarifies that the classroom teacher pay raise would be an increase of $808 for all classroom teachers, effective July 1.

The legislation would not force the state to dump its statewide Smarter Balanced standardized tests or specifically adopt ACT tests as the standardized tests.

“I am going to propose we throw Smarter Balanced in the trash can and we go to an ACT testing,” Justice had said during his Feb. 8 State of the State address.

Justice Communications Director Butch Antolini and Press Secretary Grant Herring didn’t return the Gazette-Mail’s request for a call Thursday to explain portions of the bill, so it’s unclear whether Justice plans to introduce further legislation targeting Smarter Balanced and promoting ACT. This year’s regular legislative session is already about a fourth of the way through.

However, the state Board of Education — which had four of its seven current voting members appointed by Justice — has expressed a desire to move away from Smarter Balanced.

“Today, I have an education plan right here, that I’m going to submit immediately for people to review,” Justice said during his Jan. 16 inauguration speech, holding up a blue booklet. “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.”

Justice, who didn’t campaign on many specifics, nevertheless didn’t publicly release many details of his plan until they were laid out in the bill filed Thursday. He did discuss some ideas in his State of the State address, but again, specifics were sparse.

Since taking office, Justice has appointed several of the key individuals who oversee the programs his bill would impact. The Justice-appointee-dominated state school board — to which Justice can still add two more appointees to fill two existing voting member vacancies — oversees the Office of Education Performance Audits and is currently seeking a new state schools superintendent who will lead the Department of Education.

Justice also appointed Frank “Bucky” Blackwell as the executive director of the School Building Authority.

The SBA does have a board that chooses which construction and renovation projects to fund out of those submitted by public school systems and makes other major decisions, though that board is chaired by the governor’s designee and is otherwise comprised of three state school board members, the state superintendent and six citizen members who are appointed by governors and all have three-year terms, meaning Justice can eventually replace them all even if he doesn’t win re-election.

“Preliminary glance, we’re very supportive of the bill,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association school employees union — though he said he doesn’t yet know the bill’s specifics.

He said RESAs provide many important services, so he needs to know whether their services are being completely eliminated or transferred elsewhere.

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