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Educators, legislators react to passing of House omnibus education bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Educators and school service personnel throughout the Mountain State are grieving this West Virginia Day, rather than celebrating the state’s history and successes.

“West Virginia Day is usually a well-celebrated holiday when we can look around and feel proud to live and work in the Mountain State. I feel nothing but grief right now,” said Mary Alice Chambers, a teacher at Brookhaven Elementary. “The West Virginia GOP had a chance to be heroes, to stop this nonsense and lead us out of this opioid crisis through believing in our public education system. Instead, they chose to take us in a direction with no future.”

Chambers wasn’t alone in that feeling.

“I was very disheartened, and I think a lot of other teachers and service personnel are feeling disheartened right now too,” said Allyson Perry, president of the Marion County Education Association.

Perry, an English and social studies teacher at Barrackville Elementary/Middle School, said the most upsetting part to her is that the House leadership is not listening to those who attended the forums and filled out the questionnaires.

In fact, 88 percent of those who participated were in opposition of charter schools, which passed in the House’s bill, Perry said.

“It’s very obvious when we have hard data that people do not support charter schools, and we still don’t understand why they’re trying to ram it through,” she said. “And the larger question is where is the money coming from? Why are they pushing these through?”

For months, educators have expressed concern that charter schools would take funding and other resources from the state’s public schools.

“Taxpayers are paying their taxes, and that money should be going to public schools to fully fund the free institution that’s set up to give all of our kids an education. Their tax dollars are going to go to some corporation that’s out-of-state,” Perry said.

Harrison County Delegate Ben Queen reminds those who oppose the bill that the decision ultimately lies with local boards of education.

“If the local school boards want them, then great. If the local school boards vote no, then it’s not going to happen in those counties,” he said.

Queen, who originally voted against charter schools during the regular session, said his concerns were eased by an amendment made by Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, starting with only three charter schools and then, after 2023, establishing three more.

After that, three more could be established every three years.The amendment has been termed as the “3-3-3 process.”

“It’s been a struggle for me ever since day one that we talked about this, but I think we’ve compromised on all of the issues. I think we’ve done a good form of agreement,” Queen said.

“Charter schools are proven to take away funding from public education,” said Greg DeVito, the choir director at Fairmont Senior High School. “I don’t care what Delegate Espinosa says.”

DeVito was one of many sitting home as he watched the last hour of the session Wednesday night.

“And I could kind of see the writing on the wall. It was pretty apparent when they put it into committee structure the way that they did that this was a done deal. It was kind of just realization of the inevitable,” he said.

The mood wasn’t any different at the capital, where Chambers rallied with her fellow teachers and service personnel.

“As I went home on Monday, I had never felt so disillusioned in my whole life,” she said. “The fact that we have been on our knees for resources to help these kids in our schools to be turned away. They want to pursue newer ideas. They basically left these children at the bus stop.”

Monongalia County Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer was among the 47 dissenting votes, a decision that came primarily because of the charter school issues.

“Charter schools would drip resources from public school,” Fleischauer said. “Our primary responsibility is to make sure everybody gets educated.”

After months of debate during the regular session, Fleischauer said she had hoped that the House special session would be different.

“We were going to go around to do all these listening tours, which we did. I went to Preston, I went to Harrison, we had a very big forum in Mon County, and there was just so much opposition,” she said. “I just feel kind of bamboozled with this effort to do this listening and then we’re not listening.”

But 51 legislators disagreed, including House Majority Leader and Taylor County Delegate Amy Summers.

“I’m excited about the bill,” Summers said. “It’s a $148 million investment into our education system. I think it’s going to be well worth the vote last night.”

Summers said in her jurisdiction alone, Monongalia County will see an additional $5.2 million invested into the education system, Taylor County will receive $1 million, and Marion County will get $1.52 million.

“Those things are important to me, and I think they’re going to be important to the people that are in those areas,” she said.

Of course, even educators recognize there are some positives in the bill.

Items like the handling of seniority, a four-day tax free weekend on school supplies in West Virginia, and adding school counselors, school nurses and other wraparound services were strongly supported by educators.

“Wrap around services are something that we definitely need in the public schools,” Perry said. “I don’t think you would get anyone who would disagree with that.”

The bill also contains another 5 percent pay raise for teachers.

“That’s an extra $2,000 roughly for professional teachers, but at what cost?” Perry said. “We’re getting an extra $2,000 but at the cost of siphoning off thousands, possibly even thousands of dollars to charter schools.”

With two guidance counselors to serve more than 800 students at Fairmont Senior High School, DeVito sees first-hand the need for wrap around services.

But that bad, he said, significantly outweighs the good.

“Having a couple of bright spots in an otherwise terrible piece of legislation, I mean, as far as I’m concerned they can take their 5 percent pay raise and keep it,” he said. “To me, making $18 to $25 more a paycheck is not worth the horror that charter schools are going to bring to this state.”

After two consecutive years of hardship for teachers and fighting these battles, Perry said the West Virginia Legislature has made it clear that education is not valued.

“They don’t care about our kids, and they certainly don’t care about us,” she said. “If they cared about our kids and they cared about us, I think the bill would look very different.”

Chambers said fighting this battle makes it nearly impossible to effectively teach.

“It is incredibly demoralizing to be a school employee in this state when the legislative body throws dirt in our faces,” she said. “We have to vote these people out. It is our only hope.”

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