CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The situation in the state Senate swiftly moved from ominous to omnibus.

Severe weather caused Capitol lights to flicker and prompted a brief evacuation of the Senate chamber right as a controversial, broad-ranging education bill was up for a passage vote.

“What are the chances?” commented state Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson.

After the worst of the storm passed, senators gathered again and passed the most recent version of the omnibus education bill by a familiar total, 18-16.

Patricia Rucker

“No pain, no gain,” said Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, as she urged fellow senators to vote in favor of the bill.

Like previous versions, the bill includes a variety of proposed changes to the education system, including pay raises, charter schools, increased support personnel for schools, open enrollment, incentives to fill in-demand positions and financial support for small or struggling counties.

It also would allow charter schools in West Virginia for the first time.

“This is an historic day for the state of West Virginia,” Carmichael said after Monday evening’s floor session. “We have made a massive investment in the public education system as well as providing choice and flexibility for our parents, students and teachers. This is a moment that we will mark as a turning point in the education system of our state.”

Almost six months after the senate first started considering broad-ranging changes to West Virginia’s education system, a version of the bill finally goes to the governor.

Office of the Governor

Jim Justice

Gov. Jim Justice’s Twitter account sent out a statement praising the bill’s passage.

“I applaud the for passing the education bill tonight,” Justice’s account tweeted. “This is the correct resolution that aids our teachers, students, and all those in the education community and I look forward to signing it.”

This process actually started last October when Justice and Republican leaders promised a pay raise for teachers and other state employees.

During the regular session, the Senate majority bundled the pay raise with a variety of other proposed changes to the education system, including charter schools. That bill bounced back and forth, eventually getting tabled in the House of Delegates.

Justice then called a special session on education “betterment,” starting with education forums around the state.

The Senate passed a new version of an omnibus bill two weeks ago. At that point, Justice expressed concern that the special session would go nowhere.

When the House convened, delegates passed their own version of the omnibus bill. That’s the version the Senate took up and passed Monday evening.

The version that passed allows for three charter schools in 2023 and then three more charter schools every three years. The charter schools would have to be approved by local school boards.

After the floor session, West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee expressed continued opposition to charter schools and frustration over the way the entire process unfolded.

“The educators and the public across West Virginia repeatedly said ‘We don’t want charter schools and yet that’s what we got,” Lee said.

Unions will look at the possible ramifications of the bill as well as legal options.

“Then the next option we’re going to go is the 2020 election,” Lee said. “We want to make sure we elect people who are going to listen to West Virginians to the House and Senate, not the outside interest groups.”

The vote on the education bill unfolded on a stormy night. Because this version originated in the House, the bill had to have three readings.

Senators voted to suspend rules to get that done in one evening. Eight proposed amendments, including one that would have removed the charter schools language from the bill entirely, were voted down.

As the bill was moving toward passage, a heavy storm with reports of a tornado started to affect the Capitol. Lights started to flicker, and emergency warning alerts on people’s mobile devices all went off in unison.

Shortly after 7 p.m., a security officer entered the chamber and  said, “Tornado just touched down. Everybody needs to go to the basement. I can’t stress that enough to you.”

The galleries emptied out, and people were milling about outside the chamber when Senator Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, urged everyone to go to the basement. “Seriously.”

Most people only wound up on the first floor, where some looked out the front door at the pelting rain and swaying tree branches.

After a few minutes, the weather calmed and people drifted back to discussion of the omnibus education bill.

Mike Woelfel

Senator Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, spoke against the bill, contending it could be subject to a court challenge of the varied aspects of state code it changes under the heading of single legislation.

“I believe the majority party is under a misapprehension that when this bill is challenged in court that the newly-elected and appointed members of the Supreme Court will see favorably the constitutional fragrance of this bill,” Woelfel said.

Then, Woelfel made reference to Election Day consequences.

“I have an update on the tornado,” Woelfel said. “If this bill passes, the tornado is expected to arrive November 3, 2020.”