By Alex Thomas, WV MetroNews
CABELL COUNTY, W.Va. — The West Virginia Department of Education has been here before.
Education stakeholders, public officials and community members divided into groups for roundtable discussions on best addressing an area’s education concerns.
The last time the department did such was during talks on the future of schools in Nicholas County in light of damages from the June 2016 flood.
The department — along with the same mediation group, the Consensus Building Institute — kicked off another round of forums Monday at Cabell-Midland High School, this time on the announced special legislative session on education.
“We chose not to do an open mic format where people are given a minute or two minutes to say their peace. We really want to engage in constructive dialogue,” said Kristin Anderson, the department’s executive director of communications.
Minus an introduction by Ona Ferguson of the Consensus Building Institute and state Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine, around 200 people spent 90 minutes participating in group discussions on topics such as funding, school choice and school support initiatives.
Gov. Jim Justice called for a special legislative session for later this year in light of the state Legislature failing to act on his proposed 5 percent pay raise. Lawmakers included the raise as part of the sweeping omnibus bill in addition to provisions establishing charter schools and education savings accounts. Teachers protested the legislation, which the House of Delegates tabled indefinitely.
Justice’s goal is for lawmakers to return to Charleston later this year with information documented during seven public forums held across the state. The Consensus Building Institute, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is responsible for moderating group discussions in addition to collecting and analyzing individual responses.
Ferguson, a senior mediator with the Consensus Building Institute, said mediators guide the discussions at the start.
“Our job is to help make great processes so that the people who want to participate can really focus on what they care about and share their ideas and not be worried about whether they’ll get the chance to speak or get hurt or their ideas will be captured,” she said.
Paine called the process “democracy in action.”
“People ought to be able to disagree in an agreeable manner,” he said. “There ought to be civility. There ought to be the ability to discuss items. There ought to be the ability for everyone to come to the table, objective and open-minded to start with. Don’t come to the table with preconceived ideas.”
Ferguson asked at the start for the audience to identify themselves in relation to the topic; while attendees included state lawmakers, local education officials and parents, most participants were teachers, school service personnel or other staff.
Aaron Smith, a Winfield High School teacher, called Senate Bill 451 “payback” for last year’s education work stoppage. He said the forums are important regarding the future of education, yet added teachers feel their voices are unheard.
“There are not many emotions because we don’t expect anything,” he said. “When it comes to the education, the Legislature doesn’t seem to care much about the people who are actually doing the job of teaching.”
Smith said the state first needs to address the running costs with the Public Employee Insurance Agency’s program, a common concern among public employees.
“I have an old saying from my family,” he added. “‘If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.'”
Mary Jo Jividen, a teacher at George Washington Elementary School in Eleanor, said she’s worried lawmakers will use the special session to introduce provisions of Senate Bill 451 educators opposed such as charter schools.
“I’m hoping to get some assurance that public education will continue and that we’ll get the support that we need rather than the discouragement we feel right now,” she said.
Smith, Jividen and other Putnam County teachers missed multiple days during the strike; Putnam County Schools was the only school system to remain open during the work stoppage.
“No teacher wants to be on the front line. We just want to finally be doing our job,” Jividen said. “But we feel like one thing after another, it’s just an attack.”
The state Board of Education backed some provisions of Senate Bill 451 in January, including changing the unexcused absences policy, increasing the local share cap for school system funding and additional pay for math teachers.
Paine said he does not know what the board will do once reports on the forums are completed.
“We will compile all the different comments in some fashion. I don’t know what it is going to look like yet, but when that report comes out it is our intention to let it speak for itself,” he said.
The second forum will be held Tuesday at Mount View High School in Welch. Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, announced a listening event with multiple lawmakers for Tuesday at Eastern Greenbrier Middle School scheduled for the same time as the forum. The meeting will be the first of a tour titled “Keep the Promise: Civil Dialogue Regarding Public Education in West Virginia.”