Republicans call on W.Va. Senate to stand #18Strong

Legislators say they want to find common ground in special session

PARKERSBURG — Some Republicans are taking a page from the playbook of West Virginia teachers and service personnel, calling for the state Senate to stay #18Strong as they look forward to the coming legislative special session on education reform.

A handful of Republican consultants and legislators attended a meeting Friday of the Mountaineer Breakfast Club at Golden Corral in Parkersburg. Prior to the meeting, T-shirts emblazoned with the state of West Virginia in yellow and the hashtag #18Strong in blue were given to several legislators, an apparent callback to the #55Strong movement during last year’s nine-day statewide teacher and service personnel work stoppage and this year’s two-day strike.

Rob Cornelius, chair of the Wood County Republican Party, said he and some friends created the T-shirts to show their support for Republican senators and their stance on education reform.

“This is not a county party activity, but the Republican platform statewide is in favor of education reform,” he said. “I thought it would be a good treat and remind everyone why we’re here: For education reform.”

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, who did not attend the club meeting, said Tuesday he was not aware of the #18Strong T-shirts.

“That’s nothing that I’ve endorsed at all,” he said. “That’s not in my playbook at all.”

Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, who attended Friday’s event and helped create the Mountaineer Breakfast Club, said Monday the #18Strong is simply a way of expressing solidarity among legislators. Boley was one of the legislators who received a T-shirt Friday.

“It’s a takeoff on the #55Strong with the teachers,” she said. “There is a group of us in the Senate, we stick together on the issues, on a lot of things.”

However, Boley said she doesn’t know when she’ll wear the shirt and that it doesn’t mean Senate Republicans aren’t willing to work with others.

Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, who attended Friday’s meeting, said Tuesday while the T-shirts “refer to the 18 (Republican) votes in the Senate,” he was not sure who was responsible for creating them.

“They weren’t printed up by the Senate caucus,” he said. “I was given mine by a friend.”

When asked if the #18Strong would be considered a challenge to the #55Strong movement, Azinger said that was not his or the Legislature’s intent going into the special session.

“I think the goal now is not to be head butting with the teachers,” he said. “The goal is to get the teachers a pay raise and to get some genuine education reform started.”

Cornelius said the #18Strong is intended to be a challenge to those in education who want to maintain the status quo.

“Absolutely, we have 18 senators who believe in education reform and we want to show our support for them,” he said. “I think we should challenge an education system that doesn’t work for so many of our families and kids.”

Cornelius said people are unlikely to see senators wearing the shirts during the special session as the Capitol has a strict dress code for legislators, but a few may appear at some of the upcoming educational forums.

“It’s not something you’re going to see everywhere,” he said.

This year’s strike was in response to Senate Bill 451, also known as the state education omnibus bill, which included wide-ranging education reforms, a pay increase for teachers and service personnel, and the creation of charter schools and an educational savings account, or ESA, program.

Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, the Senate Education Committee chair and main author of SB451, spoke at Friday’s meeting and indicated she would like to see all of the pieces of the bill brought back for consideration during the special session which is expected to take place sometime next month.

Gov. Jim Justice called for the special session after lawmakers failed to pass a 5 percent pay increase for teachers, service personnel and State Police troopers. The pay raise stalled after the House of Delegates tabled and killed SB 451, which included a pay raise, and Senate Republicans said they would not consider a standalone pay raise bill without including education reforms.

Speakers at the club meeting Friday repeatedly said any education reform bill could be easily be moved through the Senate, in which Republicans hold an 18 to 16 majority over Democrats.

“We can get this through the Senate tomorrow with 18 votes,” said Jordan Burgess, a political consultant and former executive director for the West Virginia Republican Party. “That’s totally going to happen during a special session.”

At Friday’s meeting, Greg Thomas, a political consultant and Republican campaign manager, said when Republicans took control of the Senate and House in 2014, they focused on areas people were not necessarily familiar with, such as right-to-work legislation and legal reforms. Education, he said, is an area everyone understands and values.

“Education reform really is the most positive issue the Republicans have had since we’ve been in there,” Thomas said.

Burgess and Thomas said Friday those in support of the reforms need to focus on the House of Delegates, which has a Republican majority but still narrowly tabled SB 451. Thomas pointed to Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, a former Wood County Schools teacher, as an example.

“I’m sure Bill Anderson hears more from the teachers than from you all. I think the more you level that out, the more comfortable he will be supporting the comprehensive education bill,” Thomas said. “Delegate Anderson is one that has voted with this, and he’s not been with us on everything, that would really be one that if he got 25 phone calls today or emails, that would get his attention.”

Anderson could not be reached for comment this week and his voice mailbox was full.

Thomas’ comments Friday may give some insight into Republican talking points during the special session. Thomas said this year’s strike differed from last year’s because there was less public support for teachers, and voters are becoming fatigued at the lack of movement on reform.

“I’m hopeful we will get a lot of what we want in a month, but if we don’t get it in a month, we’re going to get it next year, we’re going to get it the year after. The longer we wait, the more we’re going to get,” he said.

Thomas also said supporters of reform need to attend and be vocal at the forums on public education. Earlier this month, the West Virginia Department of Education announced eight forums and more forums are being announced this week.

“Another good thing we found out during the session was what were the teacher bosses going to say about why the schools are failing, and you know what they say? More often than not, ‘it’s the parents’ fault.’ Again and again, ‘it’s the parents’ fault,'” he said. “I’ve never run a campaign where I said ‘man, the voters, you all are stupid. You all are the stupidest people and if you were smart you’d vote for my guy.’ But that’s the tact these people have taken. Literally, it’s ‘I can’t teach because you’re just too stupid,’ and that’s a failing.”

But legislators this week struck a more congenial tone, talking about working with teachers and service personnel.

“The goal now is to find some common ground on public education,” Azinger said.

Even so, Azinger said he expects school choice, one of the sticking points of SB451 for teachers and union officials, to be a centerpiece of any discussion during the special session.

“When we talk meaningful education reform, you have to include charter schools and ESAs,” he said. “I think there is a lot of misunderstanding on these two issues. The unions stirred up a lot of ill will that I think can be eased with correct information.”

“I think the Senate is willing to compromise, but there are a lot of really good things in there (SB 451),” Boley said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a five-percent pay raise and no other issues.”

“We reserved the money for our teacher pay raises. That’s already part of our budget,” Carmichael said. “I want to continue to advocate for some school choice options for parents.”

Carmichael said in addition to the West Virginia Department of Education forums, many legislators are meeting with their local constituents. When the Legislature returns to session, Carmichael said, he believes everyone will have a good idea of what needs to be done.

“I would like to see something happen very quickly. The interest groups have made their positions known,” Carmichael said. “I think we need to do this in a quick manner. We don’t need to waste a bunch of taxpayer money.”

Boley said local legislators will hold their own public education reform hearing in Wood County.

“We want to hold our own meeting,” Boley said. “We just need to bring everyone in and listen.”

Wood County Schools Superintendent Will Hosaflook announced Monday that a Mid-Ohio Valley education forum will be held from 6-8 p.m. April 15 in the multipurpose room at West Virginia University at Parkersburg.

The state Department of Education announced Wednesday it would hold a public education forum from 6-8 p.m. March 25 at Blennerhassett Elementary/Middle School.

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