By: Jake Zuckerman, Charleston Gazette-Mail
An appointed, incumbent delegate in Kanawha County running her first full-fledged campaign is ready to duke it out with the teachers’ unions.
Sharon Lewis Malcolm, a retired state employee running as a Republican, repeatedly praised the Legislature for granting a 5 percent pay raise to teachers and state employees without raising taxes.
While she said she’s in favor of another teacher pay raise, and it’s unlikely that teachers would have received a raise without going on their statewide strike with school service personnel, she criticized their behavior during the work stoppage.
Malcolm spoke at a candidate forum with editors of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and with her two opponents running for the 39th Delegate seat. She took a hard stance on a number of education issues and others related to the strike.
Her remarks echoed statements that Gov. Jim Justice made several days before when he said the Republicans in the Legislature made the raises happen, not the “people rah-rahing upstairs.”
She said there is no need for each of the 55 counties in the state to have its own school board, and those boards are subject to too much union control. While she advocated for consolidation, she said she didn’t have any firm plan to decide which boards get the ax.
On the proposal of imposing a severance tax on natural gas to pay for cost increases to the Public Employees Insurance Agency, Malcolm said she opposes it because it’s too volatile a revenue stream.
On school choice, she said she supports allowing for charter schools in West Virginia, saying it gives parents more options for their children and will not take tax dollars away from public schools.
“It’s a matter of choice,” she said. “In America, you’re supposed to have choice.”
David “Woody” Holmes, a union pipefitter and son of late longtime state senator and Senate Clerk Darrell Holmes, who is running against Malcolm as a Democrat, took issue with her statements on charter schools. He said one way or another, charter schools will eat away at tax allocations for public schools, and the “choice” will go to some students more than others.
“Kids going to [Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary] will not have a choice. That’s all they’ve got,” he said. “Kids that go to Sissonville Elementary, that’s all they’ve got. They won’t have that choice. We need to see teachers in those schools.”
Holmes offered different solutions to some of the state’s problems. He said he supported a severance tax on natural gas to cover PEIA cost increases. On the opioid epidemic, he said he supported legislation that would impose a tax on every opioid sold in the state.
He said while he doesn’t necessarily have the magic solution to fix the opioid epidemic, it’s the most important thing for the state to do, for economic and public health reasons.
“This is really more important than education, because businesses do not want to come here when you go to the store, you look down, and [see a] lady has hypodermic needles stuck in her tire,” he said.
On the contrary, Holmes said he would support efforts to roll back the state’s inventory tax, an idea that brewed during the 2018 legislative session but never got off the ground.
Dana Ferrell is also in the running as an independent candidate. He said if elected, he would try to improve public spaces like sidewalks or athletic fields in the district as a means to attract and retain young people to the area.
He said he’d like to find a better answer regarding why the state spends so much money per student, yet so little of it seems to make it back to teachers. He also expressed skepticism regarding school board consolidations.
“I don’t know about consolidating counties, it’s something to look at,” he said. “It all sounds good in theory until the reality hits the road: Who’s going to get consolidated?”
He said along with being a public health issue, the opioid epidemic is hurting schools as well, because it puts schools into a nurturing role with students to compensate for family members who may have substance abuse problems, which take away from their ability to educate.
Allocating resources to support families, he said, would be a key step toward progress with the issue.
“One of the things I’ve found firsthand is that families need more support, because if the families don’t have good education, good support, the user has no chance,” he said.
On PEIA, he said the state needs to find a way to get younger, healthier people in to broaden its low-risk insurance pool.
“The big elephant in the room is the aging population that we have here as a state, state employees and teachers,” he said.
He also floated the idea of imposing a toll on highways cutting through the state’s eastern and northern panhandles to drum up revenue.
Jesse Johnson is also running for the seat with the Mountain Party. He was invited to the candidate forum, although he did not attend.
The 39th district covers the northwestern corner of Kanawha County. Malcolm was appointed to fill the seat of Ron Walters, who resigned amid a scandal for allegedly falsifying a lien document for a trailer he deeded to a Wayne County woman.