With the flash of a folder, new Gov. Jim Justice ignites W.Va. education system

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — All new governor Jim Justice had to do to spark a broad conversation about West Virginia’s education system was to wave a blue folder above his head.

“Today I have an education plan right here that I’m going to submit immediately for people to review,” Justice said at his inaugration ceremony Monday at the state Capitol.

“It’s going to be the elimination of a bunch of unnecessary agencies. It’s going to look at education in a way that’s never been looked at in a long, long, long time.”

And with that, West Virginia’s education system and political class spent Tuesday trying to figure out more about the level of detail in the folder, what agencies might be in the crosshairs and what other changes might get a big push from the governor.

“He raised this blue document that everybody is talking about,” state schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said Tuesday afternoon. “I’m sure he’s still putting out the details.”

House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa, discussing the governor’s inaugural speech on “Talkline” with Hoppy Kercheval, said the governor’s comments on the state budget drew the most attention.

“I think the little blue booklet that represents the governor’s education plan definitely ranked a close second,” said Espinosa, R-Jefferson.

Martirano, Espinosa and others like them went looking for clarification. Espinosa chatted up Justice’s staff.

“I did have an opportunity to talk with the governor’s chief of staff, Nick Casey, yesterday evening, and he indicated there are going to be a number of bullets,” Espinosa said.

“The fact that the governor is willing to weigh in to a portion of government that does represent a considerable portion of our budget and look at meaningful reform to better meet the needs of our students while trying to address the budget gap we’ll be facing — I certainly welcome the governor’s leadership.”

Martirano spent part of Tuesday afternoon in a meeting with the governor’s staff. Martirano hadn’t yet seen the contents of the blue folder, but he likes the new governor’s interest in education and thinks they can work together toward improvement.

“I’m here to support the governor and his educational agenda,” Martirano said in a telephone interview. “That was the level of the specificity.

“He’s focused on improving academic achievement. He wants to ensure we have a quality teacher in every classroom. To ensure that our teachers are compensated in a very respectable manner as well. Those three areas are absolutely critical. I feel a high degree of compatibility.”

Justice has his teaching certificate, spent some time on the Raleigh County school board and serves as basketball coach for the Greenbrier East girls and boys basketball teams. So it should be no surprise that education is one of his priorities.

Prior to the election, the campaign platform on his website featured a section about education policy that included three bullet-point items: get the politicians out of the classroom, prepare students for a career in West Virginia and pay our teachers what they’re worth.

In his inaugural address — and with different turns of phrase — he hit on all those points while also taking aim at the new A through F grading system for schools that debuted last fall.

“We’ve got 600 classrooms in this state that can’t even field a teacher,” he said. “We’ve got to get the bureaucrats out of the way. We’ve got to worry about our kids getting an A through F versus our schools getting an A through F. We’ve got to listen to people on the ground instead of trying to administer from Charleston when we don’t have a clue what’s going on and we have proven — we have proven — we know how to be last.”

Some of West Virginia’s school systems are planning layoffs because of the loss of student population or because their tax base has shrunk. Kanawha, the state’s largest county, may eliminate up to 72 positions. Boone County is looking at cutting 40 to 45 positions. Counties like Raleigh are also looking at cuts.

Martirano said he wants to help Justice find solutions, and he expects the governor’s roadmap might come into focus with more time.

“I think right now, based on some of the things the governor has said that his big vision will be parsed into a level of specificity,” Martirano said. “I’m here to assist, here to serve, here to help.”

One big way the governor can shape statewide educational policy, Martirano noted, is by appointing people to the nine-member state school board. Right now there are two openings on the board.

“That is the primary reason and way to effectuate change,” Martirano said.

Martirano said he looks forward to setting priorities and hopes the process will be thoughtful.

“Just because you say cut bureaucracy and positions, you have to also deliver those services,” Martirano said. “I want a very thoughtful and deliberate discussion, to see where expenses can be adjusted and see if there’s more opportunity to be financially efficient.

“When people talk about cutting bureaucracy, I can give you some suggestions to cut but along with that goes services we’re no longer going to be able to deliver.”

Some who contemplated what agencies Justice might aim to cut quickly thought about the Regional Educational Service Agencies, the eight centralized offices that provide training and bulk buying for the school systems in their areas.

The RESAs have long been under scrutiny and last week, a performance audit from the state Legislative Auditor recommended the RESAs be eliminated because they aren’t performing the way they were originally meant.

“RESAs, by all means, are areas of discussion,” Martirano said. “What I’m asking for is a very thoughtful discussion of RESAs.”

Espinosa, the House education chairman, said the Legislature has been looking closely at RESAs and their role. He also mentioned examining the state Department of Education and the Arts, which is separate from the state Department of Education, as well as agencies like the Higher Education Policy Commission and the Community and Technical College System.

“Do we really need multiple bureaucracies carrying out multiple functions?” Espinosa asked on “Talkline.” “I think that is an area that we are looking at very closely. What are those areas of the core mission that do make sense? Are there areas that can carry those out more effectively?”

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, liked Justice’s pledge to cut education bureaucracy enough that his office sent out a Tuesday news release in support.

Also appearing on “Talkline,” Carmichael said those comments in Justice’s inaugural speech stood out.

“Those are things this Legislature has been trying to achieve for many years, and we just haven’t had the support of a chief executive,” Carmichael said. “He’s ready to go in there and make whole sale changes to the education departments that are housed in Charleston, West Virginia, and return control to the local counties and the entities that control the school system.

“That is right out of our playbook and we will be a hundred percent with him to help him achieve those goals.”

Christine Campbell, president of American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, agrees that West Virginia’s education system is too top-heavy. She says she would like to see more control in local classrooms, like Justice advocated.

“I know that when he talks about state agencies and the bureaucracy, we all agree there is some top-heaviness around, and anything we can do to push funding down to the classroom will make a difference for our kids,” Campbell said.

Defining bureaucrat and bureaucracy is a key part of understanding what Justice wants, said Howard O’Cull, director of the West Virginia School Board Association.

“When we heard the term ‘bureaucrat,’ does it mean local bureaucrat or does it mean in Building 6 and the RESAs?” O’Cull said in a telephone interview.

“I think we’ll get an answer to that. We’ve lost so many students, we cannot keep this big apparatus going that we have. The question then is, how do you make the cuts and how are they cost-effective?”

One issue that could arise with cutting at the state government level is some employees are responsible for coordinating federal programs — and accounting for federal dollars.

The RESAs, though, could be on their last legs, O’Cull said.

“I think the RESAs, as we know them, will no longer exist,” he said. “They’ve hit the perfect storm.”

O’Cull said that by starting the conversation, Justice has done the state a favor.

“All these problems we have in the state an be solved,” O’Cull said. “But you have to have motivation, and I think the governor will provide that.

“We’ve never been able to have a good conversation on economizing education. I think this governor will at least open this conversation up this year if not settle it. I think with this governor it will happen. It could be good times for the state, really.”


Shauna Johnson contributed to this story.

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