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West Virginia lawmakers, unions prep for special session on education

Photo courtesy of West Virginia Legislative Photography Left, House Education Committee Chairman Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, and, right, Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson.

CHARLESTON — About 12 hours after Gov. Jim Justice called a special session for lawmakers to consider a pay raise for teachers and school service personnel, the chairs of the education committees in the Senate and House of Delegates say it is needed.

The governor announced late Wednesday night his intentions to call a special session for “education betterment.” Justice cited the impending death in the Senate of the 5 percent pay raise for teachers and school service personnel he promised in October before the 2018 general election and had introduced after his Jan. 9 State of the State address to lawmakers.

“It’s very clear to me now that we won’t get to the finish line in the remaining three days, but it’s critically important that we still get there before the new fiscal year begins on July 1, 2019,” Justice said in a statement Wednesday. “In order to follow through on the 5 percent pay raise that was promised we have to take a different path. Tomorrow I will call a special session to focus on education betterment in West Virginia.”

According to the West Virginia Secretary of State, the special session proclamation was received Thursday afternoon.

House Education Committee Chairman Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, said he sees a special session as the only way to bridge the differences between the House and the Senate.

“I think the call is reasonable,” Hamrick said Thursday. “I think with this call…that’s the only way we’re going to get the 5 percent pay raise for teachers and service personnel. The Senate didn’t take up that legislation and didn’t pass it. This is the way forward.”

The Senate did pass a pay raise for educators in Senate Bill 451, the education omnibus bill, but the bill died in the House after the Senate amended back into the bill a seven-school public charter program and education savings accounts for 1,000 families with special needs students.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said she was looking forward to the special session and getting feedback on the best ways to improve education.

“I’m very excited about the fact we’ll be able to bring all stakeholders and take a good, thorough deep dive into what needs to happen in education in West Virginia,” Rucker said. “I look forward to working with everyone.”

Hamrick said the plan is for the Legislature to gavel into special session as soon as they gavel out Saturday night at midnight as the 60-day 2019 legislative session ends. The Legislature will then adjourn to a yet-to-be-determined date, which will let lawmakers return home. Hamrick said the line item in the budget for the teacher and school service personnel pay raises will still be in the budget, but would remain empty.

“The money is going to be sitting aside waiting for us to get to that before July 1,” Hamrick said. “We’ll take the time between now and then to sit down with members of the community — teachers, service personnel, parents, even students — and talk to them about education and see what needs to be changed.”

According to Justice’s statement, the special session could deal with more than the raise. It could consider other reforms that died in SB 451. These include creating a funding floor for county systems at no less than 1,400 students and freezing the school aid formula.

Rucker said the special session can’t just focus exclusively on pay raises alone.

“We can’t just keep throwing money at it,” Rucker said. “I want to give teachers higher wages. I have said that all along, but I also believe in other parts, like incentives for areas of critical need and differential pay. You have school districts where it’s really hard to recruit teachers to teach. All of that is part and parcel of having highly qualified teachers in the classroom.”

“Obviously, there is a lot of things everyone agrees on that need to be changed and reformed and approved with our education system,” Hamrick said. “There were some things in Senate Bill 451 that would have brought some of those counties up to a fair level because they’re having a hard time covering their physical building expenses.”

Both major teachers’ unions in the state — the West Virginia Education Association and the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers — have expressed skepticism about the special session. The teachers unions and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association went on a two-day strike Feb. 19-20 over the charter and educational savings accounts provisions in SB 451.

“While the pay increase is much needed, the legislative leadership should be reminded that education employees did not strike over a pay raise,” said AFT-WV President Fred Albert. “Teachers and service personnel remain opposed to defunding schemes like charter schools and ESAs and will approach this special session with a suspicious eye.”

“The level of mistrust between employees and select legislative leaders is at an all-time high and we hope the governor can understand how his intention to call a special session to include ‘education reforms’ immediately sparks concern among education employees,” said WVEA President Dale Lee. “Our members’ feelings on charters and ESAs have not and will not change. To call a special session and revisit those ideas is a waste of taxpayer money and will lead to additional outrage from education employees.”

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