Local officials weigh in on education bill

CHARLESTON – Local education officials feel the education reform bill recently passed by the Legislature has positive aspects as well as things they will have to watch as they are implemented to see how they work out.

The legislation, Senate Bill 359, passed the Senate 34-0 and the House 95-2 recently after lawmakers and education officials worked on a revised form of the legislation.

”All the parties involved in the crafting of this legislation shared one belief: They all believed our kids deserve the very best education possible,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a press release. ”We will support National Board Certified Teacher recertification, provide loan forgiveness to those educators willing to teach in critical need areas, and give our schools and teachers the power to determine the type of professional development training they need to best help students.”

Tomblin said the bill is empowering teachers to assist with the hiring process with teams of faculty members helping to choose the new teacher who can best meet their students’ needs. It also provides more flexibility to schedule a school calendar that meets their needs and the mandatory 180 instructional days.

When the bill was first introduced, education groups were not in favor of it, with people protesting and holding informational pickets at the state Capitol.

The leadership of the American Federation of Teachers in West Virginia called it one of the worst bills introduced in the last 30 years, said Greg Merritt, president of the Wood County Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

”We were initially strongly opposed to this bill,” he said. ”However, over the weeks the bill was worked on and changed that made it favorable to the AFT.”

Merritt said the work done to revise the legislation made it an “OK bill.”

Not everyone was happy with the bill, but it was something people could live with, he said.

Millie Stoneking, president of the Wood County Education Association, said the bill has numerous education changes and will transform subsequent school years. WVEA and WCEA members voiced their concerns regarding items in the bill.

”Portions of SB 359 concerned educators,” she said. ”Amendments to SB 359, such as limiting the number of times a position can be posted, ensuring that elementary teachers will receive a minimum of 40 minutes planning time, preventing the reduction of planning periods for secondary teachers, studying alternative educations paths and ensuring that hiring is subjective, created a bill that was acceptable to the community, legislators and educators.”

Merritt said other positive aspects of the bill are the availability of pre-kindergarten programs statewide and other early childhood development programs. He appreciated parts of the bill that strengthened faculty senates in the hiring processes.

There are still concerns about how the school calendar might be affected in making up snow days past an established ending date for the school year.

Wood County probably would not see the kind of snow days some parts of the state could see, but in the case of a snowy winter, school districts could go late into the summer months to make up days, which is a concern to educators and parents, Merritt said.

Merritt is taking a “wait and see” approach to how some issues will be resolved once the new law is implemented and improvements can be addressed.

”It seems to me we might just have to give it a year and see how everything works out,” he said. ”The local school boards can develop a calendar and we will just have to see how it works out.”

Merritt said in crafting any legislation dealing with education the best step lawmakers can take is include everyone who has a stake in the outcome, from parents to teachers to service personnel. He doesn’t feel all of these groups were adequately represented when this bill was first introduced.

”Reform comes from all of us,” he said.