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Who should decide who serves on the state school board?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Should state school board members be elected by the citizens, or appointed by the governor?

The state Legislature asked that question during its most regular session, and will begin the conversation again this coming week.

The Joint Standing Committee on Education and the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary are planning to meet together at 4 p.m. Tuesday for a primer on the matter.

The broad discussion has been going on for months, but recent events may have added some fuel to the fire.

Within just a couple of months of Gov. Jim Justice taking office, he named a majority of the current board members. Of the 9 voting members, Justice named six.

That kind of turnover — and the ability of the governor to shape the board — doesn’t usually happen. The current system calls for overlapping terms of nine years.

The positions came open through a combination of expiring terms, terms that had not been filled and resignations. In the last instance, two prominent resignations occurred in one fell swoop when board President Mike Green and Vice President Lloyd Jackson announced their departures, saying they didn’t see eye-to-eye with the governor.

The new board president became Tom Campbell, an appointee of former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and a Greenbrier County resident like Justice.

New faces on the board were Dave Perry, Frank Vitale, Miller Hall, Jeff Flanagan, Debra Sullivan and Joseph Wallace. Holdovers were Campbell, James Wilson and Scott Rotruck.

Together, those state board members faced a controversial situation over the course of this past year.

After devastating floods struck Nicholas County during summer 2016, Richwood High and Middle and Summersville Middle schools were destroyed.

After a series of public hearings, the Nicholas County board decided on its consolidation plan, opting to use an alternative form of Federal Emergency Management Agency funding — referred to as the “428 plan” — to pool all flood-recovery money into one pool to rebuild schools.

The local school board voted to combine five schools — Richwood Middle and Summersville Middle Schools and Nicholas County and Richwood High Schools, along with the Career and Technical Education Facility — at one campus in the Summersville area.

The state board twice rejected that plan — expressing concern that local board members didn’t adequately listen to concerns from Richwood residents and that alternatives might exist.

The state Supreme Court unanimously last Tuesday ruled in favor of the state school board. The board had previously blocked a Nicholas County consolidation plan and then was challenged all the way through West Virginia’s court system.

How much influence the governor wielded in shaping the state board and its philosophy was one of the central arguments to the case.

Paul Espinosa

None of that sparked the discussion the discussion that lawmakers will be having this week, said Paul Espinosa, chairman of the House Education Committee, but recent events may inform the thoughts of those who participate.

“It won’t surprise me if some folks just assume this is in reaction to the Nicholas County case,” said Espinosa, R-Jefferson.

Espinosa said he’s heard discussion for years about changing how the state school board is comprised. This past regular session, the House Education Committee took up and passed a resolution that could have resulted in elections for state school board in 2020.

“It is definitely not a response to any recent events. It’s something that’s been a matter of debate,” Espinosa said in a telephone interview.

Had the resolution passed the full Legislature, which didn’t happen, the question of an amendment to the state Constitution would have gone to a statewide vote.

Under the resolution introduced in House Education, districts would have been proportionately divided among West Virginia’s congressional districts. Those elected would serve 4-year terms.

The committee amended the resolution to allow for the election of six of the nine state board members on a nonpartisan basis. Three members would continue to be appointed by the governor from the state at large.

The House Judiciary Committee initially passed the resolution too — but with one big change. Under its version, the proposed amendment would have placed the general supervision of free schools in the state with the Legislature, which would have been a significant constitutional move.

Two days later, the Judiciary Committee reconsidered what it had done and chose instead to create a study resolution, which is where matters still stand.

Espinosa said part of the appeal would be assuring representation for the citizens of different regions of the state — “making our state board more accountable to them and ensuring they do have in fact representatives from their area.”

For me,” Espinosa said, I would love to see some type of arrangement where we could ensure representation from each area of the state. Governors typically have tried to some extent to have representation.”

Considering that all of the 50 states are working laboratories for Democracy, a variety of methods exist for determining state school board representation.

Of West Virginia’s surrounding states:

Kentucky has 11 voting members of the Board of Education, all appointed by the governor for 4-year staggered terms with confirmation by the Legislature.

In Maryland, there are 12 voting members of the board. Eleven members are appointed by the governor for 4-year terms with a 2-term limit. The twelfth member is a student who serves a single-year term with a 2-term limit.

Ohio has 19 voting members of the board of education who serve 4-year terms. Eight members are appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate, and the remaining 11 members are elected.

Pennsylvania has 21 voting members of its state school board. Seventeen members are appointed by the Governor, confirmed by the Senate, and serve 6-year terms. The remaining four voting members are the majority and minority chairpersons from the Senate and House Education Committees or their respective designees.

Virginia has 9 voting members who are appointed by the Governor for 4-year terms with a 2-term limit.

Before West Virginia legislators this week mostly just be discussion led by a variety of speakers, including two from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The conservative-leaning Fordham Institute, a think tank focusing on education policy, lists West Virginia’s board structure among “Hamiltonian States.”

Characteristics of those states include “authority concentrated at the state level,” “authority consolidated in a few institutions” and “public participation discouraged.”

The last has to do with whether leaders are elected or appointed.

A recent report by Fordham, “Schools of Thought: A Taxonomy of American Education Governance,” elaborates on that concept, quoting Hamilton as saying, “The executive power is more easily confined when it is one.”

Fordham groups the systems in Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia as “Hamiltonian.”

Like the famous co-author of The Federalist Papers, the seven Hamiltonian states are comfortable with governing arrangements in which authority is concentrated in an energetic central government. Accordingly, all seven grant their (state school boards) the authority to take over low-performing school districts and schools and require that districts use student performance data in teacher evaluations. Moreover, five of the seven also require annual evaluations (rather than leaving the frequency of evaluations up to the district).

Among all states, Fordham looked at whether boards have requirements for criteria such as regional representation, partisan representation and gender representation. Factors such as the participation of outside organizations or student representatives were also examined.

“In participatory states, more leaders are elected (as opposed to appointed), elections tend to be partisan and fall on the same day as national elections (“on-cycle”), and state law may require regional, partisan, and/or gender balance on the state board, as well as representation for students or outside organizations,” Fordham wrote.

West Virginia was rated as “restricted,” rather than “participatory,” although the state was actually somewhere in the middle of the pack for that category.

“Most states combine statewide elections with appointments, although their approach to doing so varies,” Fordham wrote.

Greater participation has inherent advantages such as promoting democratic accountability, increasing the level of community engagement and encouraging public debate — all of which can lead to better policy, Fordham wrote.

“But greater participation has its downsides,” the think tank concluded. “For example, a cacophony of voices may drown out experts or produce gridlock. And there is always a chance that the public ends up electing demagogic or interest-group supported candidates rather than those who are qualified and public spirited.”

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