By Brad McElhinny, WV MetroNews
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia legislators are lined up to pass a budget in the next day or so, holding off on a teacher pay raise and other changes to the public school system until work is done in a special session.
Talk of a special session has swirled for days at the Capitol, and Gov. Jim Justice announced it in a statement Wednesday evening.
The governor promised a pay raise for teachers, public service personnel and other state employees on Oct. 2. The regular 60-day legislative session ends at midnight Saturday.
“With 3 days left in the legislative session, we still have not achieved what I promised the people of West Virginia – a 5 percent pay raise for all teachers, school service personnel, state troopers, and all state employees,” Justice stated.
“It’s very clear to me now that we won’t get to the finish line in the remaining 3 days, but it’s critically important that we still get there before the new fiscal year begins on July 1, 2019.”
The budget that the House of Delegates passes on Thursday will include a line item for a teacher pay raise, but the money won’t yet be allocated, legislative leaders said.
Justice’s statement said the special session will begin as soon as the regular session ends. But, the governor said, the Legislature will recess immediately to crisscross the state on a kind of educational listening tour.
“When the legislators return to the session, they will be ready to tackle the issues and get it done,” Justice stated.
Lawmakers would reconvene later in the summer, probably in May or June, after studying changes that might improve West Virginia’s education system.
“What I hope we can do when this regular session winds down and we get everything behind us, we can take some time, actually listen to public educators, listen to school board members, listen to parents, listen to students and formulate a true informed approach to comprehensive education reform rather than one that is rushed and hurried, do so in a methodical fashion and come back sometime in the spring and summer and make big, significant comprehensive education reforms that are actually informed,” said House Speaker Roger Hanshaw.
House leadership has been working each day on a potential agreement with leaders in the state Senate and the Governor’s Office. The budget being passed on Thursday by the House seems to also have buy-in from the Senate, making it unlikely to require a conference committee to work out differences.
“We are confident we’ll get out of here with a budget by Saturday that funds the government and does the thing we’ve said we were going to do,” said Hanshaw, R-Clay.
One big area of disagreement has been the pay raise for teachers and school service personnel totaling $67 million.
The House of Delegates passed the standalone pay raise for educators a few weeks ago.
The state Senate has not taken up that version. Earlier in the session, the Senate majority tied a pay raise to a variety of other changes to the state education system, including charter schools and education savings accounts, which provide tax dollars for students who are moving from public education to private schooling.
That bill was voted down in the House of Delegates. Since then, members of the Republican majority in the Senate have said they already voted for a teacher pay raise and don’t intend to again without reforms.
Hanshaw is looking forward to the special session and the work leading up to it.
“I’m excited about that. We’ve been talking about that here in the House ever since the middle of the session when Senate Bill 451 was ultimately rejected by the body,” he said.
“It’s important for everybody to realize there were lots of pieces of that bill that were advantageous to local school systems that public educators and county boards of educations and local school systems actually did want.”
He specified an aspect of the earlier omnibus bill that would have provided about $24 million for guidance counselors, school psychologists and school nurses.
“We know that guidance counselors are overworked, the student-to-counselor ratio is far too high. That bill provided millions of dollars to pay more of those professionals,” Hanshaw said. “I’m sure when we get back in here in a special session dedicated to education reform we’ll be looking at that because there was almost unanimous agreement.”
Hanshaw also pointed toward a provision of the prior bill that would have established a student population base of 1,400, even for counties that actually have fewer students than that. The base would help with funding levels.
“For those counties, that is the difference between being a viable school system and not. So I’m confident we’ll be back in with that as well,” Hanshaw said.
And Hanshaw would like to take a whack at regulations in state code, Chapter 18A.
“Teachers often lament parts of that code as being far too micromanagerial, as being far too down in the weeds,” he said. “I, for one, would like to spend time during a special session looking at Chapter 18A and asking what parts of it no longer make any sense, what parts of it need to wind up on the cutting room floor and actually spend time going to work do that.”
House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said his caucus supports the pay raises and improvements to the education system. But Miley expressed concern about needing extra time.
“I’m disappointed that if we have to have a special session that what we end up accomplishing couldn’t have been accomplished during the 60-day session that we’re down here and getting paid for anyway,” he said.
Miley said the approach taken by advocates of the omnibus education bill wound up complicating the process and eroding trust.
“If they took the personalization and politics out of Senate Bill 451 and really tried to make something happen that was meaningful for education reform in our state, we could have accomplished all of this during the 60-day session and not have to come back for what we’re all anticipating to be a special session at who knows how much expense to the taxpayers of West Virginia,” Miley said.
Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, the ranking Democratic member of the House Finance Committee, was glad the Legislature is headed toward passing the budget bill with plenty of time to spare. But he said the details of what’s in the bill will be crucial.
He said the teacher pay raise that passed the House with broad support is an important piece.
“Are we going to just concede that point and move on?” Bates asked.
Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said he would support a special session to focus on changes to the education system.
“Absolutely, there’s been discussion of that. We’ve been committed to giving the pay raises for this, but we’ve also been committed to education reform,” he said in a Wednesday interview.
“We need to fix education in West Virginia. We need to make it so student performance improves. We need to make it so teachers can do what they do best in the classroom. I would welcome a special session to address that.”
Blair described budget progress with buy-in from Senate and House leaders.
“We’re working right now, literally as we speak, to be able to manage the budget,” he said at midday Wednesday. “It’s coming together.