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Town hall meeting on Education ‘Omnibus’ Bill scheduled for Tuesday

BUCKHANNON – One issue it seems everyone across West Virginia is talking about is Senate Bill 451 – the Education “Omnibus” Bill.

And on Tuesday, Feb. 19, there’s bound to be more discussion.

That’s because an informational town hall meeting is slated for 5 to 7 p.m. at Wesley Chapel on the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College in the hope that parents, business officials and taxpayers can ask questions and learn the impact Senate Bill 451 could have on the community.

Brittney Barlett, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s meeting, said everyone is invited to attend.

“I think every taxpayer could be affected by this bill,” she said. “Most importantly, parents and educators should attend. Business owners will eventually be hiring kids in this generation, so it is important to them. Education is a foundation, so it affects everyone.”

Barlett said representatives from the state teachers’ unions – the West Virginia American Federation of Teachers, the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, will be there to answer any questions folks have.

Local union representatives will be on hand to share information about Senate Bill 451, too. Barlett, who is president of the local WV-AFT, along with Ann Osburn, president of the local West Virginia Education Association and WVSSPA local President Jessica Grose will be at Tuesday’s meeting.

Although this is the first public meeting, Barlett said there was another informal meeting at B-UHS just for educators earlier this month.

“A lot of people had not even heard much about what was going on (with Senate Bill 451), and it was easier to have just us at the meeting,” she said of the first meeting. “At that point, we thought things would resolve themselves and that it wouldn’t be such a big issue. Now that it is becoming more contentious, we want to make sure parents and community members are informed as well.”

Barlett said the groups hope to share information and answer people’s questions and concerns.

“We want people to see [the bill] from our side as well,” she said. “Why are we upset? Why is this such a big deal? We have studied this bill, and we want to share our interpretation, and this is why we foresee it as a good thing or a bad thing.”

During a special Upshur County Board of Education meeting held Tuesday, Feb. 5, members voted unanimously to adopt a resolution in opposition of Senate Bill 451.

The resolution said the Upshur County Board of Education “opposes any and all efforts to use public funds for education reform or make any changes that does not lead to higher student achievement for the most disadvantaged students.”

The resolution goes on to say that taxation and policy decisions which result in reduced revenues for public education and/or have a negative impact on our students and families must be avoided.

BOE President Dr. Tammy Samples and Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus traveled to the State Capitol Monday, Feb. 11, to attend a public hearing on the bill.

Stankus said she was asked by the West Virginia State Superintendent’s Office to testify during the public hearing.

“I had to sign in to speak by 7 a.m. and was told I had two minutes to speak,” Stankus said Tuesday evening prior to the BOE meeting. “When we got there, the Speaker of the House said there were 85 people signed up to speak, so we each could talk for 70 seconds. It was very structured.”

Stankus said there were a lot of common themes in those 85 presentations to the House Finance Committee – the need for mental health facilities; the need for nurses and counselors in each of the schools; the serious nature of behavior and mental health issues school personnel encounter as a reflection of the challenges our communities are coping with, including the addiction and opioid crisis’ and how schools are having to respond to those crises in the community.

Those making 70-second presentations Monday to the House Finance Committee included superintendents, teachers and parents.

“The presentations focused on how disappointed we are that the true West Virginia stakeholders were left out of the conversation in developing this bill,” Stankus said.

In her presentation, Stankus said she told House Finance Committee members that in Upshur County, folks only want what is best for the students.

“Student success is our success,” she said. “We would be willing to help work on a new proposed bill.

“I hope that those we have elected will hear the cry of the people on the front lines of education that this is not good for our students, this is not good for our communities, this is not good for our schools,” Stankus said. “When everyone is unanimously saying that, to the point that a work stoppage is possible to bring this point home to our politicians, it makes me sad because I want those teachers in the classroom – I want them to be in with the students. That is where the teachers want to be, too.”

Stankus said she hopes elected officials will make their decisions based on feedback from their constituents and people working in the school systems.

She said top-down reform is never effective.

“Most often, reform that is the most effective and the most sustained is that which comes from grassroots, from those doing the work,” she said. “I asked them to slow down the process and have conversations with the people doing the work.”

Samples said those making presentations to the House Finance Committee Monday were passionate about what they said.

“They believe they are being undervalued in this process, and that people who have the best interest of West Virginia or its teachers and students haven’t had any part in the decisions,” Samples said, “and they haven’t, and that’s the reality.”

Samples said she was told if a public charter school system was implemented as set forth in the original Senate Bill 451, Upshur County Schools could lose $1.6 million dollars per year.

“Upshur County Schools cannot stand to lose $1.6 million dollars,” Samples said. “We can’t stand to lose even $16.”

Additional information about Tuesday’s informational town hall meeting is available by emailing Barlett at barlett.90@gmail.com.

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