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While education policy was one of the most-debated topics during the legislative session, many local lawmakers said they are leaving the chambers with a sense of disappointment, feeling like an opportunity to improve public education in West Virginia was wasted.

Senate Bill 451, the omnibus education bill that failed, was chock-full of provisions including charter schools and educational savings accounts — provisions public school educators and Democratic legislators were against. So contentious, the measure led to a teacher walkout across the state for the second consecutive year.

The walkout lasted two days, once the West Virginia House of Delegates voted to “indefinitely postpone” the bill for the rest of this year’s legislative calendar.

Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, who was one of several Democrats opposed to the bill, told The Register-Herald he felt if legislators were serious about education reform, it could have been done.

“I feel like we wasted an opportunity. We spent months fighting over something instead of doing any good,” Baldwin said. “If we were serious about education reform, we could have looked at classroom sizes, school security, mental health, but unfortunately, we didn’t do any of those things.”

The omnibus education bill included a pay raise for teachers and school service personnel, but once the bill was “postponed indefinitely,” so was the pay raise within it. Other efforts were made in legislation to provide the raise for teachers and school service personnel, but they were voted down by Senate Republicans.

Gov. Jim Justice promised the pay raise in October last year. Now, he’s called a special session to pursue the pay raise and “education betterment.”

When asked what the future holds for public education in the state, Baldwin said he was unsure and shared mixed feelings on the governor’s proposal to hold a special session. He said it was outside of his control of what those in charge are going to try to do.

“There will be a special session, although we don’t know when that will be or what it will entail,” he said. “There has been talk of having town hall meetings and visiting schools to see what’s needed, but those are things I already do all the time. That’s no problem.

“However, that’s what everyone should have been doing this whole time,” Baldwin said. “If other lawmakers aren’t doing that and haven’t been doing that, then that’s what the problem has been all along.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I’m afraid this special session will just be a rehashing of the same controversial ideas.”

Del. Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, said there were some positive notes in regard to education this session — chief among them, restoring funding to higher education.

Senate Bill 1, which drops tuition at community and technical colleges to further workforce training, passed late last week and now awaits the governor’s signature.

“We were able to restore some funding to higher education that had been cut the past several years,” Bates said. “Senate Bill 1 provides funding and a pathway for post-secondary technical education for in-demand jobs for West Virginians that can’t afford to go to school.”

However, discussion of the omnibus education bill was a waste of time and good will, Bates said. He said the bill had provisions that would have done some good. But because all provisions were rolled up into one large piece of legislation, Bates said, the Legislature got less than nothing for it other than a two-day strike and the failure of a promised pay raise.

“So now, we come back for special session, but have once again kicked the can on PEIA [Public Employee Insurance Agency],” he said.

Two bills regarding PEIA passed, meeting Gov. Justice’s promise to put $150 million toward future funding for the plan.

The first bill, House Bill 2665, would transfer $105 million in 2018-19 budget surplus into a “Rainy Day Fund” for PEIA. House Bill 3139 would require state agencies to come up with the remainder of Gov. Justice’s $150 million proposal — the $45 million not covered in House Bill 2665.

The $45 million would go toward covering employees who are paid through special revenue, which includes a portion of those employed through higher education institutions whose salaries are paid through tuition and fees.

Bates said these bills disregarded the recommendations of the PEIA Task Force the governor formed before the legislative session began; Bates was a task force member. One recommendation included that employees’ payment of PEIA costs not increase more than 20 percent, which Bates tried to include in the bill.

“So our recommendations have been ignored and the issues of a lack of stability, predictability and affordability remain without a fix or a long-term funding source,” Bates said.

Del. Cindy Lavender-Bowe, D-Greenbrier, said now that the legislative session has ended, the only way to transform education in the state is to address the real challenges facing our students, teachers and parents: poverty, student attendance and lack of access to mental health care in schools and communities.

“One of the best predictors of student achievement is parent income,” she said.

Lavender-Bowe said the greatest impact on education will come from a thriving, diverse economy that provides good-paying jobs for all West Virginians.

Lavender-Bowe, a member of the House Education Committee, said she and other committee members did what they could to stop unwanted education legislation.

“However, there were many good education bills that simply did not progress.”

Education-related bills that passed:

Senate Bill 1:  Free community and technical college bill

Senate Bill 267: Requiring the State Board of Education to adopt a policy detailing level of computer science instruction

Senate Bill 329:  Encouraging agricultural programs be made available to high school students

Senate Bill 632:  Requiring video cameras in certain public special education classrooms, and adding justifications for which a school employee can be suspended or dismissed. Also requires the state superintendent to maintain a database of all individuals suspended or dismissed for certain reasons.

House Bill 2009:  Creating a new category of Innovation in Education grant program

House Bill 2378:  Relating generally to grounds for revocation of a teaching certificate; providing that a teaching certificate or license shall be automatically revoked if a teacher is convicted of certain crimes.

House Bill 2853:  Establishing the West Virginia program for Open Education Resources, which would put any teaching resources/materials that are in open domain in a centralized location.

House Bill 3095:  Setting the minimum monthly benefit for retirees of the Public Employees Retirement System and Teachers Retirement System for retirees who have at least 25 years of service to $750 a month.

House Bill 2541:  Requiring certain safety measures be taken at public schools, requiring each county board of education shall implement a school safety program before Sept. 1, 2019.

House Bill 2662:  Relating to certificates and employment of school personnel, providing that a service personnel contract of employment is automatically terminated if the employee is convicted of certain crimes; and providing that a bus operator certificate is automatically revoked if the bus driver is convicted of certain crimes.

Education-related bills that did not pass:

House Bill 3127: Allowing homeschooled students to participate in public school extra-curricular activities

House Bill 2433:  Modifying the school calendar to begin not earlier than Labor Day and end prior to Memorial Day, making the number of school days 170, instead of 180.

House Bill 2519:  Blocking colleges from prohibiting guns on campus, except in certain areas.

House Bill 2397:  Requiring county boards to provide adequate mental health and counseling services at the rate of one psychologist per 1,000 pupils in grades K to 7.

Senate Bill 86:  Requiring county boards provide free feminine hygiene products in grades 5 to 12.

— Email jnelson@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @jnelsonRH

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