CHARLESTON, W.Va. —Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin saw his proposed overhaul of public schools clear its first legislative hurdle Tuesday when the Senate Education Committee endorsed the bill with modest changes to language addressing teacher hiring and the school calendar.
Advanced to Senate Finance by voice vote, the bill would now also require the Department of Education to cut personnel spending by 5 percent during each of the next two budget years. The committee’s action followed a morning picket by a few dozen people from the teacher and service worker organizations outside the Capitol. Those groups remain opposed to the bill’s key provisions.
American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.
The committee’s amendment arose from several days of closed-door meetings with representatives from these groups as well as Tomblin or his top aides.
“The governor is pleased with the Senate Education Committee substitute of the bill,” Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said. “Many hours of discussion with stakeholders provided for a better bill.”
Tomblin had proposed ensuring 180 days of student instruction annually — already mandated by law but rarely reached mostly because of snow days — by freeing up 12 days now set aside for other uses. The committee’s amendment reserves time within those 12 days for teachers to hold two-hour faculty senate meetings at least four times once school begins. It replaces limits on teacher planning periods with a study due Dec. 31 on the topic.
Lawmakers also removed language that counted attending athletic tournaments and playoffs as instructional days. Tuesday’s changes further make clear that the calendar includes seven paid holidays, and allows counties to add days to their calendars to make up for canceled days.
Senate Education kept the governor’s proposed rewrite of teacher hiring and transfer practices mostly intact. The bill still gives principals a say on hiring, but now forbids them from recommending relatives. Another Tuesday change restores a teacher’s right to count seniority built up within the county when facing a transfer within a school.
The governor had proposed allowing county school boards to repost job vacancies repeatedly to attract qualified candidates. The committee limited that to just one reposting for classroom teaching positions, and then only if fewer than three people applied the first time.
Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny P. Arvon said the school district’s focus is on giving local school boards flexibility and more local control, which he said was part of the governor’s original bill.
“The southern part of the state looks at it as a detriment,” Arvon said.
Arvon said there’s a lot of fear that employees will not be protected by the proposed changes to the statute, but added that the school district needs to have more flexibility in order to get the best teacher possible in front of students, Arvon said.
State Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said the bill has been “a moving target” in that what it contains one day isn’t there the next.
Blair also said there has been a lot of misinformation about the bill, which he said should be called “the hiring and firing practices in education.”
Blair said the measure is not all encompassing and said lawmakers should devote a special session to address more of what is going on in education in the state.
The West Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers and administrators, opposes much of the governor’s bill. The rival AFT-WV and its allied group, the state School Service Personnel Association, object to most of it as well. The three united Tuesday for a morning information picket outside the Senate side of the Capitol.
Some protesters carried signs targeting Tomblin, a Democrat, and state Schools Superintendent James Phares. Their ranks included John Estep, who retired after more than 22 years as a Nicholas County classroom teacher. Now active with AFT-WV, Estep denounced the proposed changes to seniority’s role in hiring and transfers as well as the Teach for America provisions.
“We need to get some real educational reform and not this bologna that they’re putting in (Senate Bill) 359,” Estep said. “We’re tired of the students of West Virginia getting crapped on every time the Legislature meets. And that’s what this bill does.”
Hale said the groups will picket outside the state Board of Education when it meets Wednesday. Hale also said opponents will focus on opposing the bill in the House Education Committee.
Given the House Education Committee’s leanings, Blair predicted the bill is bound to be put through “a meat grinder” by the panel and wouldn’t bear any resemblance to what the Senate likely will pass.
“We could end up spending a lot of time on this and getting nothing out of it,” Blair said.
Staff writer Matthew Umstead contributed to this story.