By Heather Clower
The Parsons Advocate
Tuesday, the teachers took to the Courthouse Square in Parsons and Kidwell’s parking lot in Thomas with their signs in opposition of Senate Bill 451. The message about the decision came late Monday evening from Tucker County Schools Superintendent Alicia Lambert, stating “Tucker County Families: As most of you are aware there has been a call for a statewide work stoppage tomorrow. Tucker County Schools cannot provide services and ensure the safety of our students without adequate supervision; therefore all schools in Tucker County will be closed tomorrow, Tuesday, Feb 19. This is unfortunate, because we want our students to be in school every day. We need the support of our legislators and adequate funding for our public schools to be successful. Please know that our teachers would much rather be in the classrooms with our students, but feel that they need to take a stand to support public education in our state”. This message went out to parents and guardians of school children as well as posted on the school’s social media pages.
The bullet points of the senate version of SB 451 that remained the same throughout the amendments were to issue a five percent pay raise to teachers and service workers, $2,000 bonus for certified math teachers, a $250 tax credit for school supplies, voters to approve regular school levy increases, open enrollment, $24 million for more student support personnel, school attendance changes (House Bill 2433), s0chool aid formula changes including minimum one thousand four hundred student formula, teacher input on student promotion, and BRIM coverage for school employees.
The disagreements lied within the following agendas: yearend bonuses for teachers and/or service personnel for lack of absences, paid vs. non-paid work stoppages with disagreements on make-up procedures, unlimited or capped number of public charter schools, education savings account and their protocol vs. no education saving accounts (ESA’s), RIF decisions based on seniority alone or to consider qualifications and evaluations, county admin being at-will or not at-will employees, coverage of the Underwood-Smith Teaching Scholars program, pay check protection, a severability clause, $5 million for innovation zones, law enforcement officers or a safe school fund for security in schools, and the ability for counties to suspend/dismiss employees for findings of abuse.
While this bill was bouncing back and forth in Charleston, Tucker County teachers were happy to share their feelings and reasoning behind their decision for the work stoppage. Craig Hyre, kindergarten aid, stated “I’m here to support my co-workers and my job. Ronda Adkins, TVEMS and DTEMS school counselor explained her major issue with this bill is the charter schools taking money from public schools. According to Adkins, the right could be given to the Board of Education to increase property tax if funds were needed and the educational savings accounts could be severely abused if not monitored appropriately.
Sixth grade teacher at TVEMS Kelly Underwood answered her biggest issues were “I think the charter schools and ESA’s. I’m not opposed to charter schools or homeschoolers, but I’m concerned about the fact money can go to any parent and that student can continue to leave and return between schools”. Underwood shared she understood the senate made over one hundred and twenty pages worth of amendments to this bill, submitting it to the House just ten minutes prior to taking up session, refusing their request for a recess to review. “If it’s good, why not give them time to read it”, she suggested. Underwood did make known there are some good sections to this bill, such as small schools such as ours being funded on a fourteen hundred student level, but everyone agreed there was just too much rolled into one bill. “We’re not all about the money regardless of what people think, it’s about the children. There’s not one person that wants to be here”, she proclaimed.
During the strike, the Tucker County Senior Center delivered meals for the students at the rally sites since they were missing an important meal by not being at school. Some children rely on the services of the schools and to have a county entity step in and fill that void was a blessing to the community.
When asked how the decision was made whether or not to go on strike, Underwood explained it was voted on to give their teachers union the authority to dictate what action the teachers would take. The union representatives were monitoring the progress of the bill closely and using their best judgment to determine their next move. “We are governed by our union, they have authority to call school based on legislation”, she explained. When asked where the Board of Education stood on the decision to strike, it was said that they had signed a resolution to back the teachers and their decisions.
The West Virginia State Superintendent Dr. Steven Paine issued the following statement regarding the work stoppage and the results: “Based on the action taken today by the House of Delegates, SB 451 has been tabled indefinitely. Educator voices were clearly heard. I strongly encourage all county school systems to return to school tomorrow, February 20. I urge educators to respect the process and allow it to work. I understand that there is still concern over what may happen next. Both Governor Justice and many members of the legislature have shown a commitment to listening to the voice of educators and doing what is best for West Virginia students. Additionally, Governor Justice has called for the legislature to consider his stand-alone pay raise bill along with other measures to improve county finances and I am confident they will do so.”
The strike was officially scheduled to last both Tuesday and Wednesday; however, the impending weather forecast led Lambert to close schools for Wednesday for the safety and well being of students and staff. Lambert stated, “We made the call to close due to weather like several other counties who are under the warning, watch, or advisory. We had a dual threat with the winter storm warning and flood watch at the same time. I always try to delay or close when we get to a “warning status” depending on the time that the weather is supposed to start. In this case it was 4 a.m., so we probably could’ve made it to school, but the conditions would worsen throughout the day and make it dangerous to be on the roads at dismissal time, so I made the decision to close. After that decision was made the unions announced that they were still on strike”. Regardless of the weather forecast, school was going to be closed on Wednesday and both days will have to be made up.
Even though the bill was “killed indefinitely” Tuesday evening, the teachers union made the decision to remain on strike the second day to allow the timeframe a bill can be reintroduced to expire, just to ensure the bill was in fact out of consideration. Tucker County Delegate Chris Phillips made a statement regarding his stance on this bill. “I was not happy with every provision of SB 451, but I thought the bill that passed the House was worthy of my support. During the campaign I supported the Governor’s pay raise bill for teachers and support personnel, and just voted to pass that provision in a standalone bill. I’m not sure if that provision can pass the Senate without some of the things they wanted in the bill though, so that may well not happen this year. Politics is the art of compromise and I’m afraid it hasn’t been very artful this year”. Phillips continued saying, “Unfortunately, there were other parts of 451 that were lost that would have benefited Tucker County schools greatly. These included $2,065,484 in increased PSSP funding, a share of $24,000,000 in student support personnel funding and monies for increased school security that I pray we will never regret missing out on. All these things were lost due to the Senate raising the House provision for 2 public charter schools to a total of seven at the rate of 2 a year and ESA’s for 1,000 WV special needs students. I don’t believe charter schools nor ESA’s will fix the woes of our education system alone, but the odds of having a charter in Tucker County were almost zero and would have statistically had 4 ESA’s in the entire county. The students of Tucker County sacrificed a lot to avoid no charter schools and 4 special needs ESA’s”.
Delegate Buck Jennings also shared his input on the bill. “I was in absolute support”, he promoted. He echoed the statistics and agreed with Delegate Phillips. One of the big contributions to our county Jennings mentioned as being paid for one thousand four hundred students regardless of our only approximate nine hundred student status. In regards to the ESA’s, he stated “It was just for special needs kids or bullied kids” and was going to be capped at one thousand. Parents would have had to fill out an application and it would have been based on need. Jennings pointed out that the salaries alone that went to the teachers for just one day of work stoppage was comparable to covering the ESA funds for two years. When considering public charter schools, he suggested, “These were set up so people here would have a choice”. Jennings agrees with Phillips in the chance of a charter affecting our county was minimal, but could have been a great selling point when encouraging business to come to the area. According to Jennings, a charter school has to be proposed and approved by the county school board. “We took an opportunity away”, he stated. He provided the statistic that six out of the top ten schools in the nation are charter school and felt a lot of the local homeschool students would have utilized the public charters. He elaborated on the thought behind not requiring a teaching degree to serve as an educator within a charter, which was a concern for many. According to Jennings, the idea was to allow people with specialties who may not have a teaching degree, to be able to teach. His example was an accountant. While not having a degree in education or a teaching certificate, an accountant would be more than qualified to serve as a K-12 math teacher. The top school in West Virginia currently is Morgantown High School. That school ranks one thousand five hundredth on the list nationally, meaning all other West Virginia schools fall much farther down the list.
He continued to explain the federal funding distribution, which goes by the census and is then divided out based on the number of kids. With the local taxes, one third stays within the county. When paying state taxes, each kid is allocated between $4,100 and $4,200 even though most residents pay a significant amount more than that annually. The county gets $12,161 per student, according to Jennings. If the ESA’s would have been successful, the county would have still received $7,930 for the students who would be in a charter or homeschooled. He continued by stating that is a child they wouldn’t be responsible for transporting, educating, or supplying meals for, yet they still receive all but around $3,000 of the money they were receiving for them when they were enrolled.
Jennings commented he, along with other representatives, were disappointed in the actions of some of those in opposition of the bill. During the live stream when the bill was deemed “killed”, he stated “I am sorry you (Preston and Tucker Counties) lost all of that money”.
Senator Randy Smith responded via email with his thoughts on the bill. “I was very disappointed at the recent outcome of SB451. When the bill started out it had a lot of concerns in it for me but, as it started working its way through committees in the Senate and the House, it changed into a very good bill,” Smith sated. “I’m very disappointed that it was killed by the teachers union before it could go through the complete legislative process. Tucker County was one of the big losers in the defeat of the bill,” he continued. “Tucker County School system lost approximately 1.3 million dollars in school aid formula changes alone, as well as their part of the 24 million dollars for additional school counselors’ and support personnel” Smith concluded. Senator Sypolt was also reached out to, however with the multitude of emails infiltrating their government inboxes and their session schedules, at the time of submission he had yet to respond.
Governor Jim Justice had a bill known as House Bill 2730 that was proposing a teacher and service personnel pay raise. Amounts for teachers included a $2,120 and service personnel $1,150, equivalent to about a five percent raise in their respective areas. This bill at time of publication has passed the House and is in the Senate for review. There is also a bill in consideration known as House Bill 2433 to reduce the number of instructional days from the current one hundred and eighty to one hundred and seventy. At the time of article submission, this bill is still under review.