By Ryan Quinn, Charleston Gazette-Mail
On Feb. 19, public schools across West Virginia were empty.
Classrooms were silent and students were home. Teachers, bus drivers and others were protesting at the state Capitol.
But not far off Interstate 64 near Beaver and Beckley, past a lot full of mobile homes and another of storage pods and a mile from its namesake church, Victory Baptist Academy was open.
About 140 students total attend in prekindergarten through 12th grade at the school, a collection of gray brick and block buildings under red metal roofs.
High schoolers diagrammed sentences on the whiteboard of Debbie Roberts’ classroom. She had her students identify whether example sentences needed commas, and they competed over who could spot a redundant word fastest.
Roberts said she’s taught at Victory Baptist since 1993, after teaching at another Christian school. She’s also director of the school play and a pastor’s wife.
But her husband isn’t just any pastor.
In last year’s elections, Victory Baptist Pastor Rollan Roberts earned a new title: state senator.
One of his first acts in the West Virginia Legislature this year was to co-sponsor a bill that would funnel public money to private schools — like the religious school he leads.
The education omnibus bill that included that program, alongside many other provisions, failed during the regular legislative session.
But top GOP leaders are planning to revive ESA vouchers during a special legislative session that may begin this month. House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, has also said he’s exploring an alternative that could provide private school scholarships through other means.
Roberts said he makes $75,000 annually for his work with both the church and school, while his wife made $17,000 last year, an amount limited to preserve her social security. He said this is their only income, aside from his annual legislative salary, legislative mileage reimbursements and per-regular-session-day pay, which has totaled about $26,000 so far.
Roberts’ sponsoring and voting for the voucher program provides an example of the weaknesses in West Virginia’s legislative ethics rules, which allow lawmakers to vote on matters that would benefit themselves, their businesses or their clients.
A House rule requires lawmakers to vote in these situations, so long as they are members of a “class” of people affected financially. The rule defines a class as “five or more similarly situated persons or businesses.”
The relevant Senate rule doesn’t define class. But it allows, more broadly, for the Senate to excuse a member from voting even if they’re not part of a class.
Conflicts of interest aren’t the only issue.
Religious schools could, while receiving public money through the voucher program, exclude LGBT students or students of different religions. Public schools are barred from doing this.
Victory Baptist excludes homosexual students, according to its handbook, though Roberts and Sam Childers, the school’s principal, suggest it’s more lenient than that source states.
Roberts doesn’t deny that his school is only for students from Christian families, though Childers suggested this wasn’t the case.
The law Roberts repeatedly backed would have covered most of his school’s tuition.
He said the school costs about $4,300 per year, per child — though, unlike for public schools, parents must provide transportation and food.
Tuition is only $3,900 for the children of Victory Baptist church members and full-time missionaries. Roberts also said costs decrease for each additional child a family enrolls, to eventually become minimal.
West Virginia’s voucher program would have provided parents $3,200 per year for every child they pull out of full-time public schooling.
Childers, who runs day-to-day operations, said tuition pays for about 80 percent of daily costs.
He said Victory Baptist Church supplements “almost all the rest,” and two other Baptist churches chip in a bit.
Because Victory Baptist is a church and the school is a ministry of that church, they aren’t required to file Form 990s. Those forms are public documents that show financial details.
Roberts said his pay isn’t based on how many students attend the school.
“Probably,” he said, “if it were not for the school, I would be making more money as a pastor.”
Roberts said the “whole ESA concept was introduced and everything before I even got into the Legislature.”
He said he doesn’t know whether he’ll involve himself in shaping any ESA voucher program that may reemerge in the special session. But he said he hasn’t, and won’t, make decisions based on how it may benefit his own school.
“This is not about us and our school, that’s not what this is about,” Roberts said. “This is what will help families and students in West Virginia. It’s the bigger picture, not whether or not it will help us. That’s not why I’m where I am.”