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State school board may request teacher-planning bill veto

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By David Gutman
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State Board of Education members may ask Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to veto a recently passed bill that gives teachers total autonomy over how they use their daily planning period.

The bill, which passed both the state Senate and the House of Delegates unanimously, states that teachers have full say over how they use their time and cannot be compelled to attend meetings, parent-teacher conferences or other events during the planning periods, although they can choose to attend.

Full-time teachers are entitled to at least one planning period per school day.

"We're trying to do things to give principals more autonomy in running their schools. This request from the Legislature obviously is a change," state Superintendent Jim Phares said at the state school board's meeting Wednesday.

Phares spoke against the bill before it passed, but said Wednesday that he does not have a stance on a potential veto.

Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said the governor is still reviewing the bill. The bill was passed on Saturday, the last day of the 60-day regular legislative session. Once the bill is presented to the governor -- and that may take several days -- he has 15 days, excluding Sundays, to decide if he will sign it.

Phares' office will do a survey of counties to see what the costs associated with the bill might be. For instance, if a teacher declines to go to a necessary meeting or conference during a planning period, a substitute would have to be brought in to allow the teacher to attend the meeting during class time.

Phares said that the costs of hiring a substitute could be offset by a bill passed last year which requires licensed central office personnel in each county, excluding the superintendent, to substitute teach at least three days per year.

The version of the bill that passed the Senate gave teachers control over the planning periods, "except for occasional instances of conferences with teachers, including team meetings and evaluation conferences."

But that exception was taken out by the House of Delegates, and the two bodies settled on the House version of the bill in a conference committee on Saturday, the last night of the legislative session.

Once the state school board gets an estimate of the possible costs of the bill, board members will consider making a recommendation to the governor.

Board members also approved a plan that will require about 35 child-care workers at the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind in Romney to get more education in the coming years in order to keep their jobs.

If the employees comply, and stay at the school, they will get substantial raises.

The child-care workers work in dorms during non-school hours, between 3:30 p.m. and 8 a.m. They would be required to get an associate degree in child development or a related field by July 2018, essentially four years to do two years of coursework.

The position of "child care worker" will be replaced by "residential care specialist" and salaries will rise by $8,000 to $10,000 per year.

The higher salaries will cost a total of $228,000 annually.

The requisite programs and degrees are offered at Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College, about a half hour from Romney.

There is no guarantee that those currently working at the Schools for the Deaf and Blind will keep their jobs, but experience will be considered and given priority as the new positions are filled.

Ellen Allen, the director of Covenant House in Charleston, has a daughter who recently graduated from the Schools for the Deaf and Blind.

Allen wrote to school officials and legislators encouraging the change.

"She has more frequently encountered child care workers with a deep lack of understanding of child development," Allen wrote of her daughter's experience. "It has been my experience that the residential setting is the weakest link in a program that is advancing admirably in the classroom. A wide chasm of disengagement exists in the residential setting that is impeding the full potential of a rich educational experience."

Christine Frye, the director of student living at the schools, also wrote to the Board of Education to encourage the change.

"I want you to know that I respect my staff, want the best for them, know that their skill levels must improve and the residential programming must improve in order for the needs of West Virginia's children who are deaf and blind to be met," Frye wrote.

State Sen. Donald Cookman and Delegate Ruth Rowan, whose districts include Romney, told the board that they were concerned that longtime employees could be thrown out of a job by the new requirements.

The board also approved a new plan for renovations to the Schools for the Deaf and Blind. The new plan, which includes renovation, but not new construction, will cost about $45 million. A previous plan that included several new buildings had an estimated cost of $82 million.