School board, legislators discuss education reform proposals

by Kate Evans

The Morgan County School Board and area legislators discussed their thoughts and concerns on educational reform and Senate Bill 451 at the April 16 school board meeting. Delegate Daryl Cowles, Senator Charles Trump and Delegate Larry Kump were present.

Board president Aaron Close said he didn’t like Senate Bill 451 levying additional taxes. The bill included funding for charter schools and employee pay raises and was postponed indefinitely by the Legislature in February. Close also felt it would be helpful for the Legislature to change the time frame for personnel so that it fell before budget time. Schools needed more time to consider personnel needs.

Charter schools

Board vice-president Pete Gordon was concerned about charter schools and educational savings accounts.

“Charter schools take finances away from the neediest students. Parents with means will push their kids into charter schools to the detriment of public schools,” Gordon said.

Gordon thought that charter schools would hurt the school system financially and wondered if the gifted program and other programs could be expanded within public schools instead.

Board member Eric Lyda wanted to see more local control in education.

Lyda said he supported most of Senate Bill 451 but struggled with a few things in it. Educational savings accounts troubled him. He liked increased salary supplements for math and science teachers and tax credits for school supplies. Lyda felt funding innovation zones would help local districts to benefit students.

School board member Laura Smith agreed with other board members’ concerns and said that the county’s special education population is growing considerably.

Special needs students each used to be counted as one and a half students because so many resources were involved in their care. Smith would like to see that return.

Pay raises, state aid

Board member John Rowland expressed concerns about PEIA, pay raises and keeping new teachers. Teachers go across the river and earn so much more. Standardized tests are being changed every few years. It takes two to three years to get used to a new test, he said.

Rowland said 80% of the school budget has to go to personnel. That leaves 20% for everything else. The board is very frugal. Rowland felt the state aid formula needed some serious consideration.

School Superintendent Erich May said he liked the pay raises for employees and the increases for school mental health. Increased Step 5 funding meant more money for nurses and counselors. Increased special education needs were also an issue.

May raised some examples from Pennsylvania as a caution for legislators to consider. Cyberschools being funded at the same level as a brick and mortar school with maintenance needs, charter schools being cheaper to run from hiring non-union personnel and charter schools accepting only certain kinds of kids.

Legislators respond

Delegate Larry Kump said that legislators had considered competitive salaries in border counties. Kump noted that the nine state school board members are appointed by the governor, sit for nine years and also appoint the state superintendent. Kump was for more local control and wanted school board elections held at general elections.

Kump said he liked the idea of money following a student, but didn’t like how the educational savings account was structured.

Delegate Daryl Cowles said that West Virginia needed educational reform and that the “status quo is unacceptable.”

Cowles said that the state is in the top third in per capita spending in education but West Virginia’s school performance is in the lowest third. He felt more local authority and control is best. Cowles also stated that the state education department is too top-heavy and too centralized.

Cowles said that Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia all have choice options for education that West Virginia doesn’t have.

“It’s important to have good schools and to fund good schools,” Cowles said.

Senator Charles Trump said that 44 states and Washington D.C. have charter schools. Trump, who helped write Senate Bill 451, worked on the state aid formula, which he stressed doesn’t work for counties with low school enrollment.

Trump said tax money is going to Charleston and not to education. The state is pushing that on counties. Trump said that Senate Bill 451 would have pumped $151 million into education and $5 million into charter schools and educational savings accounts.

Work stoppage sanctions

Trump discussed teacher pay equity and said the Eastern Panhandle is losing good teachers. He felt there should be sanctions against teachers that participate in work stoppages and that county boards of education that allow them should have monetary sanctions against them.

Trump noted that the Legislature is charged with providing a thorough education.

School Treasurer Ann Bell expressed concerns about what’s state-mandated versus what is funded. Morgan County Schools lost 38 fulltime enrollees. Schools are told how many classrooms they have to have, how long a bus ride has to be, but the state doesn’t fund it. Bell said school buildings are crumbling and most money is going to salaries and benefits.

“We need more maintenance money,” Bell emphasized.

Trump noted that two school construction bonds failed before a third bond passed in 1973 that built Widmyer Elementary, Great Cacapon Elementary and other facilities.