W.Va. Teacher unions urging Governor to cancel special session

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Next week's agenda for the special legislative session isn't clear, Del. Michael Angelucci, D-Marion, told 5 News.

He said lawmakers have largely been left in the dark ahead of what's supposed to be a special session on education betterment.

"If we're not going to be able to pass an education bill that provides funding for our public school system, that provides pay raises for our teachers, then I see no reason having these negotiations," Angelucci said.

Teacher union leaders agree. They called a joint press conference Tuesday to call on Governor Justice to cancel the special session.

"We will call on the legislature to halt any reform efforts until the regular session, run separate bills for separate issues, and allow those bills to be discussed in an open and transparent setting," said Dale Lee, President of the WV Education Association.

The state department of education has held public forums in the last few months to address teachers and community concerns.

Christine Miller is the Taylor County superintendent. She's concerned that the rhetoric surrounding education reform hasn't changed, despite the Department of Education's efforts.

"I'm not certain the message of the people is being heard. That's my concern"

She hopes talks can resume at some level with input from the concerns gathered by the Department of Education.

As for the teachers, they said all they want is a seat at the table and for their concerns to be taken seriously.

One of those teachers is Bridgeport High School's Jenny Santilli. She's been teaching for 38 years and said lawmakers' explanation for reform proposals like charter schools are misguided, including comments that West Virginia schools are among the worst in the country.

"It doesn't need to be reformed," Santilli said of the state's education system as a whole. "It does need renewal. But, they should let the teachers and school employees and those who are in the trenches have a say in that."

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said the House of Delegates is working legislation to " improve the state’s education system by increasing flexibility at the local level, providing more support and resources for classroom teachers and building administrators, and funding critical needs of local schools."

In a press release, Hanshaw said attorneys from the House, Senate and State Board of Education have been invited to participate in the code review process as the legislation is written.

“We agree that our local educators and school officials know what works best for their students and communities,” Hanshaw said. “It’s time to end the micromanagement of this system from Charleston and allow our teachers and local officials – who have the greatest level of expertise in this – to do their jobs and serve our children the best way possible.”

The leadership of several teacher unions in West Virginia had a news conference Wednesday to discuss their issues with the state's education system and urge the governor to cancel the upcoming special session.

The West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers of West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association had a joint news conference.

"There is no need to rush through an ill-conceived plan that will harm our students and our state," said WVEA President Dale Lee. "Take time to understand the issues, bring in the stakeholders, and focus on the points that we all agree will make our schools better and our students more successful."

Legislators are scheduled to reconvene at 2 p.m. Monday, May 20. According to House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, lawmakers and education officials are nearing consensus on a path forward with education reform that will empower local communities and increase flexibility in the state’s education system.

"In recent weeks, delegates have been gathering input from parents, administrators, teachers, service personnel and students in our districts to hear their ideas for improving our school system,” said Speaker Hanshaw after the special session was announced. “We’ve also been discussing ideas with our counterparts at the state Board of Education about how we can work together to improve our education system. I believe we are approaching a consensus around a plan that would give local school boards more flexibility and autonomy over their local systems while removing much the cumbersome legislative mandates that have shackled the hands of our professional educators.”

However, at the press conference Wednesday morning, union leaders said there is no need for that battle to play out in a special session.

"They had this opportunity in the last legislative session," said AFT-WV President Fred Albert. "Despite the findings of the report on education forums, the legislative leadership has publicly stated repeatedly that they intend to use the special session to advance their out-of-state, corporate agenda, ignoring the voice of their constituents."

According to our sister station, WSAZ, Albert said each day of a special session will cost West Virginia taxpayers about $35,000. "That's a hefty price tag for a second attempt at retaliation against education employees by legislative leadership. It's fiscally irresponsible to spend taxpayer money on a special session that blatantly ignores the will of the public."

The union leaders are calling on Governor Jim Justice to cancel the special session and allow for this debate to carry out in the regular legislative session in January 2020.

"If the Legislative leadership wants to work on real important topic, let's do it, but if you want to keep beating the same drum, stay home and don't waste our taxpayer money on an out-of-state B.S. special session," said WVSSPA Executive Director Joe White. "If the legislative leadership wants to bring up the same old same old, let's do that in regular session. Let's glove up and meet in January and let the bell ring. Don't hide behind these walls in the summertime. Let's do it in January. You bring your state agenda pushers, out-of-state agenda pushers, and we'll bring our West Virginians and we'll see who wins. We will not be silent about things that matter and we will not sell our soul for $1,000."

Union leadership said they want to see more counselors, nurses, and social workers in West Virginia schools. They also want to prioritize smaller class sizes, drug counseling programs for both students and their families, as well as wrap around services.

"Contrary to what some have said, we are not supporters of the status quo," the unions stated in a joint press release. "We want to see positive changes made in our schools and we have consistently outlined what some of those changes might be."

WSAZ reporters, at the press conference, the union leaders also talked about school safety, the shortage of bus operators, underfunded maintenance departments, overworked teacher aides, and other concerns.

The West Virginia Department of Education released a final report May 7 titled "West Virginia's Voice" that includes concerns and opinions about the structure and organization of the state's education system.

The report outlines the Department of Education's top priorities after listening to "stakeholders" including parents, students and teachers at public forums across the state.

"What matters to us is every West Virginia student, not just a few," said White. "At the public hearings that our Legislature had, 87 percent of the speakers said no to charter schools, said no to ESAs."

According to union leadership, they defeated provisions of the controversial Senate Bill 451 -- also referred to as the omnibus education bill -- during the regular session. Now, they fear those issues will be "resurrected" during this special session.

"We get to see, around the state, the great things that are happening with public education," said Lee. "You can make numbers say anything you want them to say, and that's what they're [lawmakers] doing."