BUCKHANNON – Members of the Upshur County Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution opposing the passage of Senate Bill 451 – widely known as the Education Omnibus Bill – during a special meeting Tuesday.
The hotly contested legislation, would, among other items, call for the development of a statewide charter school system, permit school boards to increase property taxes without a public levy vote, use public funds to pay for students who attend private school through educational savings accounts, limit the unions’ ability to collect dues from members and provide 5 percent pay raises to school employees.
Sponsored primarily by Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, SB 451 passed the state Senate by a slim margin of 18-16, with Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, being one of only two Republican senators who voted against the bill, in addition to Sen. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe.
Board president Dr. Tammy Samples said there are 29 big ideas contained in Senate Bill 451.
“Many of the ideas in the bill could be considered a good thing, and many of [them] could be concerning to multiple stakeholders,” Samples said. “Many school boards across the state have met and discussed and came up with a resolution in opposition to this. So, I will entertain comments about this. We have talked, and I have multiple documents from other boards.”
Board vice president Katie Loudin said she appreciated the invitation from unions – including Upshur County chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia Education Association – to attend an informational session Monday night.
“I felt like the information session was really valuable for me,” Loudin said. “I know there has been a lot of conversation around education savings accounts and charter schools, and I felt like I have to give major kudos to Brent Kimble who has done a lot of research. He said he has read the entire document twice.”
“I felt like I had a much better understanding of the items in the bill beyond social media … I thought he did a really good job talking about school choice and charter schools and the potential impact on Upshur County and West Virginia Schools,” Loudin added.
Kimble is a social studies instructor at Buckhannon-Upshur High School.
“The state board of education has also made a statement that the people who should have been part of making decisions about this bill were not part of the discussion,” Samples said. “Dr. (Steven) Paine said our state education leaders haven’t had the opportunity to give input into this monumental bill.”
Board member Dr. Greenbrier Almond said the sweeping legislation is complex with myriad parts.
“As I looked at this, it is a 60-day session for the legislators, and they have used about a third of it,” Almond said. “They passed 37 bills last year and (Senate Bill 451) has 20 parts. This could be taken apart and addressed, each item, and they would still have time to do that. I always think prudence is on the side of discussing things and taking time. Vote on the ones that are easy and keep talking on the ones they have to polish until they get it right.”
Board member Alan Suder said he agreed with all comments that had been made.
“I just don’t feel this bill is in the best interest of our school system,” Suder said. “I was reluctant to take a stand because I really didn’t feel it is our place, but it is getting to, as fast as it moved through the Senate, time to stand up and let your voice be heard – that we disagree.”
Board member Kristi Wilkerson said she agrees with the state board of education’s stance in broadly opposing the legislation.
“One item that they did take care of in the Senate was the number of students in the classrooms for grade one through six – that was very concerning to me,” Wilkerson said. “Anyone who thought that was a good idea to put that in, in the first place, that just blew my mind. Those are young children who need more one-on-one attention – to even be considering that was a huge concern of mine.”
“Another fact is … we have, in this county, so many students of different backgrounds and different needs,” she said. “Some counties call them disadvantaged. We have a huge problem we are facing with foster care and opioid addiction and so on. This bill looks like it may take money away from those students in this county who really, really need this school system and need our teachers. That is where my largest concern is.”
“The other side of this, is that … our teachers’ pay raises are attached to this,” Wilkerson continued. “Our teachers need and they deserve that pay raise. But there are so many controversial parts of this bill that I find it unfair that everything is tied to that pay raise. This bill, frankly, is not sitting well … [and neither is] the process through which it was been handled.”
Loudin said she has seen a lot of comments about the ability for county boards of education to raise property tax rates.
“I think to put that kind of responsibility in five people’s hands is irresponsible,” Loudin said. “I think that should always be up to the voting population.”
Superintendent of Upshur County Schools Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus delivered a prepared statement, saying, “We are facing challenging times in public education. Shortages in classroom teachers, service personnel, nurses, counselors and support staff all reflect the need for qualified personnel. We all have the same goals: to provide academic preparation; instill social responsibility; provide skills for our students to be productively employed; and pursue higher education. We want our students to have a desire for life-long learning. Our hope is that the politicians who represent the citizens of our great state will make decisions that reflect the value of education and recognize the hard work of our public school employees.”
The board then unanimously approved a resolution that outlines their opposition the bill.
Following the meeting, Loudin said that as a board, they agreed many components of Senate Bill 451, in the long run, would be harmful to public education in Upshur County.
“In the resolution we passed, we said the bill as a whole has several alarming elements, including charter schools, education savings account funding and levy rates,” Loudin said. “We are up against huge crisis – so many students in foster care, so many families in our county affected by the opioid epidemic that it just doesn’t make sense to us to pull more resources out of the schools where we are on the front lines of some of these problems.”
Loudin said the school board feels the school system has a responsibility to address the needs of every student – no matter how equipped they are when they walk through the school’s doors.
“We think this bill would really hurt our ability to impact those who need us the most,” she said.
Ann Osburn, Upshur County Education Association President and instructor at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School, said she is pleased the Upshur County BOE is on the group’s side regarding Senate Bill 451.
“This has been very difficult for all of us,” Osburn said. “We are glad to know we have their support as we decide what will happen next.”
Osburn said she was upset with Senate Bill 451 because it contained so many different items in one massive bill.
“It would have been so nice if they would have asked some educators to help with making this bill and have some things separate,” she said. “Some of these things have been successful in other areas, but we are a rural area, and our kids need our support. I am afraid charter schools will take away from our kids.”
Osburn said if the bill progresses through the House of Delegates, there could be a walk-out of teachers and school personnel.
“I think there could be, but I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Osburn said. “All of us want to be in the schools; we want to be with our kids. That was the hardest thing last year – not being with the kids and we hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Jessica Grose, West Virginia School Service Personnel Upshur County President and bus aide, said she too was pleased the Upshur BOE’s support.
“The members wondered if the BOE would have our backs, and I am very thankful that they do,” Grose said. “The BOE included everyone – the lower class and the upper class and all of the students in Upshur County and their families.”
Also, during Tuesday’s meeting BOE members voted unanimously to approve the following personnel recommendations:
-Louise Michael as substitute teacher, effective Feb. 1, 2019.
-Barbara R. Sanders as cafeteria manager at Washington District Elementary School, effective June 30, 2019.
-Bill Groggs as bus operator for Upshur County Schools, effective June 30, 2019.
The next regular meeting of the Upshur County BOE is slated for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019 at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School.