W.Va.’s county school leaders discuss bill

By Steven Allen Adams

Staff reporter

CHARLESTON — The new education omnibus bill that passed the West Virginia Legislature last week represents millions in addition funding for county school systems, but could also pose new challenges to county superintendents and board of education members.

The state Senate passed House Bill 206 on June 24 during a special session on education betterment called by Gov. Jim Justice March 10. The governor signed the bill Friday.

The 155-page education omnibus bill is a metamorphosis between Senate Bill 1039 — the Student Success Act — that passed the senate June 1, and the house bill that originated out of one of the education select committees June 17.

After a compromise was struck between the house, senate, and the governor over the public charter school provision in the bill, the house passed HB 206 June 19, followed by the senate five days later. The three groups agreed to allow a three-school charter pilot until 2023 should a county school board choose to allow a charter school. Another three charter schools would be allowed after 2023 and three more every three years afterward.

Justice was supposed to sign the bill Monday in ceremonies at schools in Kanawha and Jefferson Counties, though those events were canceled due to threats of protest by teacher unions.

While Justice has expressed concerns about expanding charter schools past a three-school pilot project, he said he supported the final version of HB 206. The West Virginia Education Association, the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, and several Democratic lawmakers all urged Justice to veto the bill.

Now that the bill is signed, it will be up to county school boards to implement HB 206. The West Virginia School Board Association held a conference call Friday with school board presidents from all 55 counties to lay the groundwork for the next steps in complying with the new education law.

WVSBA Executive Director Howard O’Cull said the county board presidents would divide into three groups to tackle specific topics: charter schools, innovation and local school improvement councils, and finances and transportation.

“Then we’ll begin to answer the questions that superintendents and boards will have regarding what kind of policies do we need, what kind of regulations do we need, and things like that,” O’Cull said. “Now the questions we’re getting are ‘I hated to see this pass, but.’ That’s the place where we are. We didn’t really like it, but now we have it, so now we have to uphold the constitution and our oath of office and what do we do next.”

Rick Olcott, president of the Wood County Board of Education and a past president of the WVSBA, has already been thinking about how his board will implement the 155-page and all its components.

“Locally, the first things we will have to do, first and foremost, is understand all the different aspects of House Bill 206 and understand what policies we may need to modify at the local level to make sure we compliment the new law,” Olcott said. “Also we’ll need to understand the financials.”

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, has advocated for massive education reform since pushing for Senate Bill 451 during the 2019 regular legislative session. That bill died in the house over disagreements over charter schools and education savings accounts. Both SB 451 and HB 206 had additional funding mechanism for county school systems.

“It improves funding to our schools by massive amounts,” Carmichael said. “We provided the largest pay raise in state history. We have put forth wraparound services that are so desperately needed and advocated for by teachers and the education community, payment for unused sick days, and extra money so they can buy school supplies. There are a multitude of great provisions in this bill that the teachers love.”

According to the Senate Finance Committee, the price tag for HB 206 is more than $130 million. The largest cost is $68 million for a 5 percent average pay raise for teachers and school service personnel — the one since 2018 when lawmakers gave teachers and staff a 5 percent raise after a 10-day strike.

The bill also increases the salary steps by three for math teachers, a cost of $2.3 million; and special education teachers, a cost of $5.3 million. Increasing the number of mental health professionals in schools — five professionals for every 1,000 students — will cost $30.5 million.

Teachers who use less than four days of sick leave would get a $500 bonus, a total cost of $2 million. Teachers would get $200 per year for purchasing academic supplies, materials, and equipment and the current expenses percentage would increase by 1 percent — a cost of $6.5 million. Changes to the Underwood-Smith teaching scholarship and loan assistance program will cost $300,000.

While the bill itself costs $130 million, that doesn’t begin to cover how much investment the counties will receive start Monday, which starts the 2020 fiscal year. Counties will get to keep more of their local share and counties with fewer than 1,400 students will be funded as if they do have 1,400 students. The total estimated increase in the public school support program for the 2019-2020 school year starting in August is more than $134.2 million.

O’Cull said that counties with consistently declining enrollment will see benefits from the add infusion of funding to their school systems.