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Tomblin staff, state superintendent take education bill questions

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Just like a heavy piece of furniture, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform bill is so big, lawmakers have a specific plan for how exactly to move it.

Senate Bill 359 was explained to lawmakers during the first Senate Education Committee meeting in which it was taken up – Feb. 28 – and Committee Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, isn't trying to rush things.

Lawmakers asked questions about the bill of Tomblin's Policy Director Hallie Mason, West Virginia Superintendent of Schools James Phares, state Board of Education President Wade Linger and a representative from Tucker County Schools.

Representatives from the state's two teachers' unions, AFT-West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association, were not able to speak to the bill, but Plymale said they will have the first cracks at comments at the next meeting, which will be at 2 p.m. March 5.

Plymale also warned lawmakers to make room in their schedules for two-a-day meetings March 5 and March 7, with 5 p.m. meetings both days planned to last "as long as you want to go."

Mason told lawmakers last year's education efficiency audit drove many of the proposals in the bill, but the two goals of the bill are to provide the best possible outcomes for students and to receive the highest return on education dollars for the state. She said Tomblin has a three-pronged approach to education reform, which consists of legislation, executive orders and coordination with the Department of Education to foster an environment that promotes student achievement.

"I'd also like to address the misconception that the bill hurts teachers," Mason said. "We believe it better empowers them."

Mason said the bill would change the accreditation system to move from a test-focused system to one that takes other factors into consideration, such as graduation rates and Advanced Placement test scores.

Mason said the bill would "empower them to help select their peers," and it also would "overhaul how professional development is structured."

Mason addressed the criticism that the bill would take all paid holidays away from school employees. She said the bill would not take away faculty senate days nor does it take away the paid holidays currently in the calendar. Mason said snow days would not count as instructional days as part of the proposal.

The bill would keeps seniority as a significant part of the hiring process.

She said the 43-week restriction currently on the calendar would be eliminated under the measure "to provide flexibility for local schools who decide to move to a balanced calendar."

Phares spoke to the teacher hiring part of the proposal, which lawmakers had several questions about.

"If you have in school A two teachers assigned to teach kindergarten, and school B has one because by March 31st it had a population to support those two, if on the first day of school you only have enough students for one kindergarten class in school A but enough for two in school B, unless the surplus teacher in school A agrees to transfer to school B, you have to go post and bid an additional position," Phares said. "The intent of this particular language is to not allow schools to operate above the number of teachers that they have, but it gives some flexibility."

Mason explained that current law outlines only seven considerations for hiring a teacher, and seniority is one of those factors. She said those considerations make up a matrix that potential hires are sorted through, and the name that emerges is the person who must be hired. This proposal would make the opinions school principals and faculty senate members an eighth consideration.

"They do have input to some extent now, but the input increases greatly," Mason said.

Phares said this would allow a county board of education to decide if its members aren't satisfied with a candidate that the position should be re-posted.

"One of the things board have been frustrated with … you get stuck with someone who can't do the job and they know it," Phares said. "This allows them to continue the search until they get the person who can do the job."

Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, asked if there are safeguards that would keep this hiring method from being abused, and Phares told him the grievance process is the safeguard.

Lawmakers then heard about a situation in Tucker County that would have been improved with this proposal.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said he would like to see scientific evidence or studies that demonstrate the need for hiring changes.

"Here we are, changing an entire system for some anecdotal stories, and I just think that's irresponsible of us," Unger said.

Judy Hale with AFT-WV, who disagrees with several portions of the bill, said she's heard most of the administration's arguments already, and she has tales of her own to tell. She said a position in Boone County was illegally re-posted repeatedly, and when it went to court, the judge who heard the case was a good friend of the Boone County superintendent, so it was not a fair decision.

Mason said there currently is a problem with hiring, and that's why it's a part of Tomblin's legislation.

As for the education audit's main criticism that the state's education is too tied up in code, Linger said the bill addresses those issues, but the board is developing its own policies to help.

"The board feels the first thing we need to do is get through this process and find out how the code is going to be changed," Linger said. "Define what the work is going to be at the department, define what the department is going to do, before we define how many people we need to do it."

Linger said there are "something like 25 or so" positions that had been left unfilled.

Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said he would rather hear that those positions had been eliminated rather than left unfilled.

"I completely agree with you," Linger said. "The audit and our response came out in November, and right now it's February. I can assure you that we're getting there."

Plymale said the committee is already working on an amendment for a section of the bill that mistakenly changes the state's qualifications for hiring a superintendent, but did not expand on the amendment.