By Eddie Trizzino, Times West Virginian
FAIRMONT – After the West Virginia legislative session wrapped up this year, many questions remained about public school funding, and more importantly, a promised teacher raise.
Gov. Jim Justice said he wanted to address “education betterment” in a special session, however, lawmakers are still in the dark as to when such a session may take place.
“We don’t even know when it’s going to be right now,” said Sen. Roman Prezioso(D-Marion). “The governor has not been involved in this process and I don’t think he has the faintest idea of what he needs to do.”
Senators and delegates have been meeting with education leaders and union members statewide to hear their thoughts on education reform should be handled in a special session.
Prezioso has attended several meetings between lawmakers and educators. He said he has a clear sense about where teachers stand.
“The No. 1 thing that the boards of education were concerned about... was obtaining quality, certified teachers for the classroom,” Prezioso said. “There is not enough money right now to help one system, why do we want to start two systems? So those are the problems we’re dealing with going into the special session.”
Prezioso discussed these issues in a town hall in March, hosted by the Marion and the Monongalia County Education Associations. Some attendees had concerns about holding the session itself.
“We know that those 18 senators are going to vote that way,” said Allyson Perry, president of the Marion County Education Association union. “I’m at the point where ‘What’s the point of having a special session when we know that we may not get anything out of it and people are paying possibly a million dollars if they go a week or two into special session and not accomplish anything.”
There was also a similar meeting in Harrison County last week, where Senate Bill 451 was brought up once again as a topic of discussion. The Omnibus Education Bill allowed for establishing charter schools and education savings accounts as a way to improve education in West Virginia.
“I think the Senate Bill 451 is going to come back up in its entirety again,” said Stacey Strawderman, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. “The senators did bring up that the pay raise is going to be in there and funding for counselors and counselors in schools, but I just don’t think we can let charter schools get their foot in the door. There is no place for them in West Virginia.”
Social issues were also topics of discussion, and the lawmakers believe some of these need immediate attention as well in order to improve upon the level of education possible in the individual school systems.
“We’ve got to help our parents actually bring up these kids,” Strawderman said. “And grandparents that are bringing kids up, they’re at a loss at what to do. I think we need to really start focusing on helping them so our kids are safe and healthy.”
Prezioso agreed, and said focus should be placed on fixing some of these issues before even beginning to think of creating an entirely new system of charter schools.
“Once the teacher is in the classroom, there are so many social situations, family situations that may prohibit teaching,” he said. “If a student walks into that classroom hungry or lives in an environment of domestic violence, the last thing that student is worried about is learning math or English, language arts skills, science skills.
“You’ve got to provide teachers with the wrap around services and social agencies to deal with all these problems.”
For the democratic lawmakers, the special session and “education betterment” comes down to getting teachers and public personnel what they need to do the best job they can.
“I think we need to let the teachers teach and we need to listen to them,” said delegate Mike Caputo(D-50). “There is a big controversy over charter schools and educational savings accounts because we feel that that takes money out of public education which we want to use the money for the greater good, not just for the select few.”
Knowing what they know following the town halls and the teacher work stoppage surrounding the issue, lawmakers know what needs to happen in the session, and Prezioso is hoping not to see a repeat of the original session.
“I think our democratic members of the senate have been well schooled and well versed to provide the best resources that they can to talk about education betterment,” Prezioso said. “Is the leadership of the senate going to allow them to air out their differences, or are they going to present a bill like Senate Bill 451 and vote up or down on it on all the issues, or are we going to take each issue separately and vote up or down on their own merits. I think that’s what the question is going to be when we get into session.”