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Opinion: W.Va. Senate omnibus education bill draws attention

By Phil Kabler

For the West Virginia Press Association

Week three of the 60-day regular session saw the unveiling of a massive, 144-page omnibus education bill, whose release had been anticipated since the start of the session.

Phil Kabler

While it includes a second round of 5 percent on average pay raises for teachers and school service personnel promised by Gov. Jim Justice and legislative leaders last fall, it includes a number of provisions opposed by state teachers’ unions, including:

—  Legalizing state-funded charter schools.

— Allowing public funds to be used for private schools and homeschooling.

— Differential pay for teaching math and other subjects with shortages of certified teachers, and in border counties.

— Increasing maximum class sizes for elementary school classes.

— Rolling back seniority rights.

A year after teachers won an initial 5 percent pay raise and the promise of adequate funding for PEIA health insurance benefits following a nine-day statewide walkout, the bill also includes a number of provisions aimed at the teachers union, including requiring union members to annually re-give permission to have union dues deducted from paychecks, and to withhold pay during work stoppages, even if the county superintendent has closed county schools.

Unusually, the bill has a nonseverabilty clause, meaning that if any portion of the legislation is overturned in court, the entire legislation – including the pay raises – would be void.

Initial reaction from leaders of the teachers unions was muted, but a coalition of union leaders and school administrators have scheduled a conference Monday to raise concerns with the bill.

Democratic senators, however, raised objections to the rush to get the bill advanced out of the Senate Education Committee Friday evening, a little over 24 hours after the bill first surfaced.

“I still don’t understand the urgency of this, and the need to rush things through,” said Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, whose request for time to meet with constituents on the bill was rejected. “For the record, I don’t want to be a part of this affront to democracy.”

Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, whose committee will next consider the bill, argued that the pace was not unusual.

“Just because the bill is that thick, most of the pages don’t have underlines on them,” he said, indicating that large portions of the bill simply restate existing state Code, and are not changes to public education policy.

The omnibus education bill wasn’t the only education legislation moving through the Senate.

A bill to provide free community and technical college tuition to students meeting a variety of criteria, including requirements for drug testing and community service, passed the Senate unanimously, but faces an uncertain future in the House, where a similar bill died last year.

Even before its passage, at least one delegate dismissed the bill as an entitlement, a comment that was rebuked by Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, a leading advocate for the legislation.

“Anyone who wants to construe this as an entitlement is ignorant and uninformed,” he said.

After the bill’s 34-0 passage in the Senate, Carmichael urged delegates to also support the measure.

“If you’re interested in prosperity in West Virginia, this is a yes vote as quick as you can make it,” he said, touting the plan’s potential to provide trained workers to address workforce shortages in parts of the state.

Also during the week at the Legislature:

— While touting accomplishments of the past year, most notably the launch of a state One-Stop Business Center, Secretary of State Mac Warner again called for an investigation of how the state Board of Risk and Insurance Management, which he believes is overly willing to settle claims against the state.

“I think the Senate and House have an obligation to look into that: How many cases are brought, and how many cases are tried,” Warner told the Senate Finance Committee, in his first appearance before the Legislature since BRIM settled 12 wrongful termination lawsuits against him for $3.2 million, stemming from his purge of office employees when he took office in January 2017.

However, Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said of BRIM, “It’s their job to protect the state’s money. They believe they’re doing that in a proper way now, as most insurance companies do.”

— The Senate began work on a bill that would cap legislators’ per-day pay for special sessions on the budget bill after five days’ pay (SB 263).

Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said the bill is designed to avoid what happened in 2016 and 2017, when legislators drew a total of more than $1.4 million of extra pay during extended budget impasses each year.

“If we can’t get our work done in that period of time, we shouldn’t get paid for it,” he said of the five-day cut off.

— Phil Kabler is the capitol reporter Charleston Gazette-Mail and senior correspondent at the W.Va. State Capitol.

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