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Education hiring takes center stage during education reform debate

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CHARLESTON, WV -

A lot can get lost in a lengthy, comprehensive bill aimed at overhauling public education.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, doesn't want any of the pieces slipping through the cracks.

"It looks like a shell game," Unger told West Virginia Board of Education President Wade Linger while sliding his cupped hands along the desk in front of him.

Unger fired off several questions during a Senate Finance Committee March 14meeting to look at Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education bill, Senate Bill 359.

The committee substitute for the bill passed the committee , but not unanimously. The recorded "no" votes came from Sens. Unger, Truman Chafin, D-Mingo; Doug Facemire, D-Braxton and Jack Yost, D-Brooke.

The bill is expected to be brought to the full Senate for a vote by the end of this week.

"You've got managers managing managers managing managers," Unger said.

He was calling into question the board's recent decision to hire a director of operations at a rate of $104,000 per year.

Unger asked because the committee was tasked with examining the fiscal impact of S.B. 359, and the bill calls for the state superintendent to cut 5 percent of the staff for Fiscal Year 2014.

Counsel to the committee said that would result in $1.1 million in savings, but Unger asked if the board would cut staff but then hire those same individuals as "contract workers," but Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, a member of the Senate Finance Committee who also is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the bill would prohibit that.

Finance Committee Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, reminded lawmakers that questions should pertain to the fiscal note for the bill.

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares said the cuts the bill orders would come from the 2013 fiscal budget. Phares said they already had "relinquished" 12 administrative positions, which met and succeeded the 5 percent cut, and they had plans to "repurpose" 16 positions to the state's Regional Education Service Agencies.

Phares deferred to Linger to explain the director of operations position. Linger said last summer, the position was proposed to help respond to the state's education efficiency audit. He said previous superintendent Jorea Marple, who was fired suddenly and without explanation in mid-November, had "shifted" funds from the Department of Education to provide for that position.

Unger asked why, while other state agencies are cutting their budgets by 7.5 percent this year, the board is adding positions.

"It's difficult to cut zero," Linger answered.

Linger said the board also had plans to ask for funds for a lawyer and for a "policy-type position."

"We're attempting to create a staff so we can do our jobs," Linger said. "I think you can see the state board has come and is going through the process, above the board, asking for funding to fund these positions.

"We're not trying to slide around through the system."

Unger said he could see if the board used that process once, though it could happen again.

"I can see this now, a position that goes unfilled at the Department of Education, you shift it over to the Board of Education," Unger said. "The department shows a decrease, and you have an increase."

Linger said there are myriad competing interests in the education realm, and just like the citizen Legislature, board members have day jobs that keep them busy.

"We feel we can be more effective if we have a couple of people in the loop every day keeping things moving for us," Linger said.

Plymale didn't ask Linger any questions, but said he had never had as many meetings with or heard as much candor from a board president in his 21 years in office.

Plymale said he understands wanting to add full-time staff to keep the balls in the air for a part-time body.

Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, agreed.

"What you're simply doing … is setting up a director of operations to coordinate these four entities that fall within your jurisdiction?" Barnes asked Linger. "I think that's a great idea."

Other fiscal impacts of the bill include: $1.1 million in savings because of the reorganization of professional development; a cost of $37,600 for the statewide student assessment program; a $3.3 million cost to increase pre-K programs; a savings of $2.9 million for allowing personnel to transfer positions; a $1.2 million cost for additional pre-K positions; there is no cost associated with studying planning periods and no cost associated with establishing the teacher loan program, but committee counsel noted that the loan program would only have whatever level of funding the Legislature would provide. 

 

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