CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Three candidates for governor of West Virginia let their ideas be graded by one of West Virginia’s big teachers unions.

Senator Ron Stollings, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango and activist Stephen Smith of “West Virginia Can’t Wait” each took turns answering questions posed by members of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.

Fred Albert

The event at the Culture Center in Charleston was the first-ever gubernatorial forum for the union, said AFT-WV President Fred Albert. He said all declared candidates for governor were invited, but Smith, Salango and Stollings — all Democrats — were the ones who participated.

Another Democratic candidate, economic developer Jody Murphy, later said he would have liked to have participated but was not notified about the event.

Education issues have been front and center in West Virginia in recent years.

Two years ago, teachers went on statewide strike for nine days over pay and ever-increasing out-of-pocket costs for health insurance. Last year, an omnibus education bill that included a charter schools provision prompted a shorter teachers strike.

“We know that education should play a very important part in all races,” Albert said.

“The last couple of years, teachers in West Virginia have become very politically active. In fact, we have several teachers who are running for office. So they have become engaged, and they’re interested.”

Smith, Salango and Stollings were asked questions over the course of a little more than an hour, taking turns to stride forward and make their pitch. Their policy views were similar, but they differed on style, approach and some specifics.

Ron Stollings

Stollings, a Boone County physician who has been a senator since 2007, started by putting on a red “55 United” ball cap in reference to the strike of two years ago. “I was right there with you,” he said.

He said an emphasis on the health and education of children has to start right away.

“I get the big picture,” Stollings said. “We have to really invest in these early services so that we don’t lose another generation.”

Ben Salango

Salango, a plaintiffs attorney in Charleston who has been on the county commission since 2017, said “I’ll be a governor who puts public service ahead of self-service.”

He added, “As your next governor, I’m going to make sure we keep our promises to our educators and our students.”

Stephen Smith

Smith, who had led the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, has been criss-crossing the state to hear from people about their policy ideas. Late last week, the campaign released a multi-point education platform based on ideas generated from those meetings.

“I didn’t write that plan. You did,” Smith told the crowd at the Culture Center.

He said his campaign is based on more than just himself.

“I promise that I’m not your answer, but together we can win a state that works for all of us,” Smith said.

Each candidate described being against charter schools, with Smith saying they’re way down the list of desires of ordinary West Virginians.

“We live in a state right now where there is a consensus among voters that aren’t even being touched in that building or in that building,” Smith said, referring to the Capitol and the building that houses the Department of Education.

On fully funding insurance for public employees, Stollings advocated a dedicated revenue source including the possibility of a tax on sugary foods. Smith proposed four funding sources: cannabis legalization and taxation, a half-penny wealth tax on those with more than $2 million, an “end to corporate tax giveaways” and doubling the severance tax on natural gas.

Salango said he would call a special session on day one of his administration to focus on PEIA.

“There’s plenty of money out there if we just quit giving money away,” Salango said.

On the 180 days of school specified by state code, each candidate said that’s not flexible enough.

“I think it’s about quality, rather than quantity,” Salango said. He added, “It doesn’t make sense to have an arbitrary number and say you have to have 180 days.”

Smith said the days in the school year should be determined locally, not by the state.

“It’s another example of who do we want making the decisions,” Smith said. “Do the final decisions end up being made in a conference room a hundred yards from here or is it made in a classroom with teachers and teachers working together?”

Stollings prescribed more innovation. He said greater broadband access would give rural classrooms more options. He said leaders need to examine what time to start each school day is best for students. He suggested looking at trimesters as a different way to organize the year.

This was all part of an endorsement process for AFT-West Virginia that will also include candidate interviews with the union’s political action committee.

The candidates wrapped up their pitches by saying they could be a part of broader change.

Stollings said it would be difficult to flip the House of Delegates but that changing the Senate to Democratic majority is possible. And he said the governor’s race matters.

“I’ve worked on both sides of the Capitol and on both sides of the aisle. We’re all trying to be the CEO of the great state of West Virginia,” Stollings said.

Although he would like to lead the executive branch, Stollings gestured at the others and said, “Believe me, these are good people and they would be good governors.”

Salango said West Virginia’s path to success starts in the classroom.

“We can change the trajectory of West Virginia,” he said. “I’d be honored to have your vote as the next governor of West Virginia.”

Smith said improving West Virginia will require a team effort.

“We don’t have failing schools in West Virginia. We have failed leaders. We have a failed government,” he said. “We’re not going to change that government with one person. Not with one person or one governor. It’s going to take all of us.”