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Senate Education passes bill with big changes after a day of debate

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By Brad McElhinny, WV MetroNews

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After a five-hour meeting, the Senate Education Committee passed out a 140-page bill meant to alter many aspects of West Virginia’s school system.

The vote shortly after 6 p.m. was a party-line 7 to 5. The bill was reported to the Senate floor with a recommendation that it be referenced next to the Finance Committee. There has not yet been an estimate of the bill’s financial  

Democrats on the Senate Education Committee protested that it was pushed through before a full airing and asked that their names not appear as sponsors on the committee-originating bill.

“Very rarely do we rush this way on regular bills that are a couple of pages as fast as this major piece of legislation that we’re originating today and not give opportunity for me as a representative of the Eastern Panhandle to ask the folks who sent me down here,” said Senator John Unger, D- 

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, responded, “I appreciate your opinion. It is the intention of this chair to get this bill through.”

The committee met for hours over the course of Friday afternoon.

The discussion began with committee complaints of not having the proper version of the bill to follow and continued with a presentation by a charter schools advocate who flew in to talk and another separate presentation on educational savings account.

The debate will pick right up again on Monday with an 11 a.m. news conference by educators’ associations.

Those groups include the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, the West Virginia Education Association, the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, the West Virginia Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals, the West Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals and the West Virginia Association of School  

“You have a 140-some page bill that you see the day before, you run it out in a day-and-a-half in the committee, the only experts — and put quotes around experts — that are allowed to testify are on charter schools and education savings accounts,” said Dale Lee of the WVEA.

“When the senators wanted to take it to the constituents they were told this is not how democracy should work. A bill this large and comprehensive should have plenty of time to be vetted. A day and a half is not enough time.”

The bill combines the promised pay raises for teachers and other public employees along with provisions for charter schools.

The bill would also let teachers bank personal days for retirement credit. It would give counties greater latitude in paying some teachers more for in-demand expertise. It would require teachers to sign off annually on union dues. It would allow for Educational Savings Accounts.

It stipulates that if there’s a work stoppage that closes schools, those involved would not be paid.

It’s all tied together with a non-severability clause, saying that if any part of the bill is struck down then it would all be void.

Educators have suggested the bill may violate a single-subject clause of the constitution because it applies to various sections of state code.

The Senate Education Committee discussion started off chippy and grew to a boil.

Rucker made it clear that she wanted to pass the bill but let the committee discuss whether to remain for the evening or to return back on Saturday.

Of the two, Unger opted to stay Friday evening. But, he said, “I requested that you give us the weekend that you let us consult the people who brought us here. That was turned down or ignored.”

Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, a Republican from Berkeley County who shares a district with Unger, took issue with that statement.

“OK, I admit. I’m a little confused here,” Blair said. “The fact of the matter is we could have come in here tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock.”

 

Blair suggested there was ample time to be acquainted with the bill.

“You could have read this bill. Many people in the audience read this bill because we all know that even though it’s this thick, most of these pages do not have underlines on it, and you can go through and almost every piece of this has been in other bills before, where it’s combined together.

“Also, we get paid for a 60-day session. We get paid for tomorrow. We get paid for Sundays. We get per diems on Saturdays. We get per diem pay on Sunday. We’re here to do a job.”