By Ryan Quinn, Charleston Gazette-Mail
Debra Sullivan told her fellow West Virginia Board of Education members Wednesday that she was perplexed, a word she repeated, alarmed and concerned about a state school board “finance” committee suddenly adding lawmakers as members and discussing non-finance-related topics.
“I was perplexed and dismayed to see that there was a policy committee established without our knowledge, without our opportunity for input,” Sullivan said.
It’s rare for the board’s members to publicly express disagreement. None of the seven other board members at the meeting near Berkeley Springs echoed her concern, though board President Dave Perry apologized.
Sullivan said “this is not about hurting my feelings” but that “I’m concerned about anything that would undermine the board’s authority.”
Jim Wilson was the only board member absent Wednesday.
The board is composed of nine members who are nominated by governors and confirmed by the state Senate.
To change its own policies, the board must post proposed changes for a 30-day public comment period and then vote to adopt or reject the changes. State lawmakers don’t have authority to amend or reject the board’s rules.
During this year’s regular legislative session, Republican senators unveiled the sweeping Senate Bill 451, dubbed the education omnibus bill, and rushed it through the Senate with little time for the public to understand its effects.
The bill included significant changes, such as legalizing charter schools and vouchers for public school alternatives, while also increasing public education funding.
The omnibus bill failed to pass, but looming is a special legislative session in which lawmakers could again attempt to rush through significant education changes.
Sullivan noted that she’s heard presentations on the board’s constitutional role (one presentation was last month), and she said “policy is the Board of Education’s role, that’s what we do.”
“As far as policy goes, the Department of Education has a process in place to collect input from stakeholders throughout the state,” Sullivan said. “That’s very important, they take it seriously.”
Sullivan raised her concerns after Perry reported to the board on the discussions of the “statutes and policy” subcommittee of the finance committee.
In its first meeting, the subcommittee discussed allegedly obsolete education-related state laws and which ones of those should be repealed.
Perry said the subcommittee, meeting again Tuesday, discussed an important board policy: 2510. That policy, among many other things, sets which courses public school students must take to graduate.
“What seemed to be a consensus of the committee is that 2510 needed to be looked at in terms of more flexibility to schools,” Perry said.
Perry also said “there was a belief” that the minimum minutes per school day requirement in both 2510 and state law “needs to be done away with, that we need to talk more about quality, and not as much about time.”
He also said the subcommittee discussed these possibilities: later school start times in the morning; an extended teacher workday; and an extended annual number of teacher workdays or a slightly shortened student school year, to give teachers more days for things like training and collaboration.
Last month, board members were publicly discussing their possible power to ignore the laws state legislators pass.
At that April 10 board meeting, Perry expressed concern about legislative “encroachment” and asked if the board, theoretically, could sue the Republican-controlled Legislature.
In an interview right after that meeting, Perry said he wanted to know what the options were if lawmakers didn’t cooperate in making the state school aid funding formula “adequate” for students.
But two weeks later, the board’s finance committee, which hadn’t met since November, met again — this time with powerful Republican lawmakers as members. The chairs of the Education and Finance committees of both houses had been added.
The committee set dates to meet weekly, up to the expected start of the special session later this month. And the board finance committee established the policy subcommittee, which Perry said would focus on policy issues that aren’t mainly about finance.
After lawmakers joined, Chris Hamilton, chairman of the West Virginia Business and Industry Council and senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, two industry groups, requested to join the committee and was added.
“I learn, in reading in the newspaper, that the finance committee has evolved in certain ways, it had become also a policy committee and it had added legislators,” Sullivan said. “Neither of those points were raised at our board meeting at all.”
“I’m aware that the [Education] department has been working on 2510, they have been looking at 2510, they have at least monthly meetings,” she said. “I am kind of an adjunct, I guess; they invite me to come when I can.”
“I wasn’t aware of that; I wasn’t invited,” Perry said with a slight laugh.
Sullivan noted that the department, which the board oversees, just released its report on the input it received through its special session-related forums and surveys. The report made recommendations that department officials said were based on this feedback, plus research and the department’s own judgment.
“Here we are at a critical point,” Sullivan said. “This report is coming out — has come out. Massive amounts of human capital, and time and effort and money has gone into putting this report together. So we have that, and, you know, I would think that we would want to rally around the department’s recommendations.”
Sullivan said, “There are things in there that may very likely be in conflict with whatever the finance committee comes up with.”
Perry again said House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, requested that lawmakers be added to the committee, but Hanshaw has said the request came from board members. In an interview Wednesday, Perry said he couldn’t recall who suggested the additions first.
“I would not like to get crossways unless it were a lawsuit with the legislators,” Perry told Sullivan.
Perry said the full board will have the final say on what it will or won’t recommend to lawmakers.
Tom Campbell, a board member and former delegate, said, “In my tenure, both in the Legislature and the board, I have never seen this level of working together.” Though he quickly noted, “Now, we’re not all agreeing.”
He asked Sullivan to talk with him later, after board member Miller Hall suggested moving the meeting along from the conversation.