Omnibus education bill moves to edge of passage; Justice questions whether session is on right track

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Senate advanced an omnibus education bill to the brink of passage, while Gov. Jim Justice expressed reservations.

“We’re at a very, very difficult impasse,” Justice said Sunday afternoon.

Senators will consider passage of an amended version of the “Student Success Act” starting at 9 a.m. Monday.

In separate meetings with Republicans and Democrats — and then public remarks to reporters — Justice asked whether it’s worth continuing on the current path.

The governor, who called the special session on education “betterment,” appeared at the Capitol on the second day of the Senate’s consideration of the omnibus bill.

Gov. Jim Justice

Justice expressed reservations about three aspects of the omnibus bill. He has questioned an unlimited number of charter schools, has asked whether seniority should be displaced as the main factor in layoff situations and criticized a provision that would cancel extracurricular activities in instances of work stoppages.

“I think being here is not any good. I think we’re spending taxpayer dollars. We should have already figured this out,” Justice said. “And I don’t think it’s any good.”

The bill under consideration 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.

This all started when Governor Justice and members of the Republican majority promised a pay raise for educators last October.

During the regular session, the majority in the Senate then rolled the pay raise into an omnibus bill with other education issues, including some that were controversial. The House eventually tabled the bill.

That’s when Justice called for the special session, which began with forums around the state.

Justice, who is also a girls basketball coach at Greenbrier East High School, spoke with the most detail about his objection to canceling extracurricular activities if there’s a work stoppage.

“Of everything, that needs to come off right now,” Justice said. “I’m a coach. What are you going to do in the middle of football season if we have  a work stoppage and we’re out for 10 days and we can’t practice, and we go back on Thursday? Are you going to play on Friday night?

“What happens if you do that? You’re endangering our students. You’re endangering their well-being by doing that. Now that needs to go.”

While the Senate is ready to pass an omnibus education bill, the House of Delegates plans a different approach.

Speaker Roger Hanshaw sent word to delegates that the House will reconvene at 8:30 a.m. June 17, which coincides with regularly-scheduled interim meetings.

The House has broken up into four special committees, and intends to deliberate over individual bills. Hanshaw’s direction includes “any proposals that may be passed by the state Senate by that time.”

Justice said the different approaches of the two chambers seems bound for trouble.

“If all we’re going to do is send something over to the House that the House is not going to accept at all; the House is going to send it back. All we’re doing is wasting more time, more people’s money and more taxpayer dollars. If that’s all we’re going to do, we need to go home. That’s all there is to it,” Justice said.

Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, took Justice’s remarks to mean the governor believes the session should stop.

“It was quite unusual,” Prezioso said. “He comes in a couple hours before session and wants to talk to the senators. Our caucus has never refused talking to the governor. We told him we wish he’d show up more and talk to us and try to take charge of this situation.

“So he came to us and told us about all the good things happening in West Virginia and all the goodness he wants for education and he hoped that this session would stop. He said let’s put the brakes on, we don’t want the same thing that happened during the regular session. And our caucus agreed with him.”

But Prezioso also said, “Our caucus said ‘Look governor, you have to be in charge of this situation. Are you willing to bring both groups and tell ’em that?’ He didn’t come with a plan, he wasn’t willing to meet, and we’re back to where we started. We walked out wondering just why we talked to the governor.”

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said he welcomed the governor’s remarks but did not indicate the conversation influenced the course of events.

“No, from our perspective, he just said essentially ‘I appreciate your efforts on working on this bill.’ He gave his input as to a couple of components of it and said ‘I look forward to working with you.'”

Carmichael added, “We appreciate his input, but the ball’s pretty far down the road. But, so, again, we welcome his input.”

Senators went ahead right after Justice’s remarks and considered amendments to the omnibus education bill.

The most debate unfolded over a proposed amendment that would codify a 1990 court decision on work stoppages.

“I think what we need is a clear expression in the law, by the Legislature, that there be no strikes or work stoppages,” said the sponsor, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan.

Prezioso was among those to disagree. He said t’s important for teachers to be able to get to the Capitol. “Those days are made up. They’re paid to teach X number of days.”

Senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison, made reference to the work stoppages of the past two years: “This is retribution.”

There was more back-and-forth on that notion.

Senator Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, asked “Is there any element of revenge here?”

Senator Trump responded, “Not on my part.”

“It is intended to prevent strikes or work stoppages in the future,” Trump said. “What is in my heart is to say the students need to be in school.”

That amendment was adopted on a 17-14 vote with three absences.

Several more amendments were also adopted on voice votes. The most consequential was one sponsored by Senator Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, which would remove the authority of higher education institutions to authorize charter schools.

Yet another amendment was sponsored by Republican Bill Hamilton. That one called for votes by county citizens if a local school board decided to establish a charter school. Other Republicans spoke against Hamilton’s proposal, and it was defeated.

The Sunday afternoon floor session got chippy, with heated words being exchanged between Senator Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, and Senator Bob Beach, D-Monongalia.

At one point, Carmichael had hoped for bipartisan passage of the big education bill. But the votes have not gone that way, and cordiality has withered.

The Republican majority likely has the votes to pass the omnibus education bill on Monday. But Carmichael said he doesn’t think bipartisan support is likely any more.

“No, I don’t,” he said. “And it’s unfortunate because all of the components that were brought to us by the minority party to say ‘If you can do these things then we’ll be able to support it’ and of probably the 10 things that were brought to us we were able to do seven or eight of them.

“So I thought we’d made a great effort to be bipartisan, to be compromising and to be open to viewpoints from across the aisle. And Im disappointed that it’s either all or nothing.”

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