By Brad McElhinny, WV MetroNews
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Just a few minutes after a coalition of educators asked to slow down a broad-ranging education bill for a full hearing, the Senate majority voted to bypass what normally would have been the next step in the committee process.
The education bill instead will be considered by the full Senate, acting as a committee.
Debate over the motion made by Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, lasted about half an hour.
Members of the Republican majority rose and said considering the bill this way will allow all senators to hear discussion and expert testimony, even those who don’t serve on the education or finance committees.
“It is important that the entire body look at this,” Takubo said.
Democrats protested at the rare nature of this move — one that Republicans acknowledged has only been done in 1961 and 1917.
The Democrats contended that the committee process works and that consideration by the Finance Committee is appropriate considering the likelihood of vast financial effects of the education bill.
“I’ve been here 30 years. I’ve never seen this,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion. “Why don’t we just close down the entire committee system, which is the foundation of this body, and bring every bill to the floor?”
All that unfolded just minutes after a coalition of educators gathered to push for more careful consideration.
The groups included two teachers unions and the service personnel union, plus associations representing superintendents, high school principals and elementary and middle school principals.
“Where were we when this bill was being constructed?” asked Mickey Blackwell, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals.
“We weren’t being consulted, we weren’t being called, we weren’t being notified. We were only hearing rumor, and we were not being contacted by our legislators. We have grave concerns about the democratic process here in West Virginia.”
Their appearance came one year after a statewide teachers walkout that closed school for nine days. Those who gathered Monday said educators have no desire to close schools again, but they did not rule out the situation coming to that.
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.
The bill raises maximum class sizes from 25 students to 28.
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.
Official discussion about the education bill just began last Thursday when it was described for an hour in Senate Education.
Debate then continued during five hours on Friday before the Senate Education committee. Democrats on that committee said that was still not enough time to discuss the full scope of the bill.
About two hours of that meeting were devoted to testimony by backers of charter schools and educational savings accounts. The first half hour went toward concerns that senators did not have proper copies of the bill to follow along as described by staff counsel.
“The speed at which the bill advanced is concerning and begs the question why,” said Blaine Hess of the The West Virginia Association of School Administrators.
“Why did committee members have so little time to review the legislation and to talk with their constituents? Why were members of the education community not asked to address the bill?”
As the bill passed out of Senate education about 6:30 p.m.Friday, Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair made a motion for it to be passed first to the full Senate with a recommendation that it be referenced to finance.
The membership of that committee includes 10 Republicans: Takubo, Blair, vice-chairman Kenny Mann, Donna Boley, Bill Hamilton, Mike Maroney, Rollan Roberts, Chandler Swope, Dave Sypolt and Eric Tarr.
It includes seven Democrats: Prezioso Doug Facemire, Bill Ihlenfeld, Corey Palumbo, Bob Plymale, Ron Stollings and John Unger.
Mann, R-Monroe, who was the education chairman last year. He was moved this year and replaced by Senator Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, as the education chair. He was widely viewed as not always in step with the rest of the Republican caucus on some education issues.
Mann expressed doubt about the big education bill to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
“At this point with this bill, I’m just not convinced that this is the right approach,” he said.
Hamilton, R-Randolph, was elected this year with support from teachers unions after serving for many years in the House of Delegates. Hamilton wrote on his Facebook page this weekend that he does not support the education bill.
“It seems to me the leadership here is afraid the committee system is not working,” Prezioso said.
Hess, who is superintendent of Jackson County schools, was seated in the gallery when the Senate voted to bypass Finance and consider the bill as a committee of the whole.
“Certainly you wonder why they are bypassing Senate Finance,” he said.
“Were they concerned that it didn’t have the traction there? I really don’t know. Certainly it needs a vetting. While it seems curious we’re not going through the normal process of the committees, if this gives a chance for further vetting we’ll be interested in watching and listening.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael told reporters after the floor session that the committee of the whole will meet in the chamber once a fiscal note is ready. He said he would name a chairman and other committees would be canceled.
Carmichael disagreed with the assertion that the move was made to bypass Finance, saying he did not know how a vote there would have gone. He left open the possibility of West Virginia educators testifying before the full Senate.