By Mannix Porterfield
West Virginia teachers are fit to be tied over Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s massive education reform package but their leaders Tuesday declined to say if their charges are preparing to walk from the classrooms.
Using athletic parlance, the heads of both the West Virginia Education Association and American Federation of Teachers reminded a reporter that the Senate Education Committee’s approval of Tomblin’s bill is merely the first step in a long and exhaustive process before it arrives on Tomblin’s desk.
Even so, the scuttlebutt around the Capitol suggested teachers are so fiercely opposed, that strike sentiment is building to a fever pitch.
While avoiding the word “strike,” the WVEA and AFT leaders acknowledged that all options are available.
“We’re in the first inning,” said the AFT’s president, Judy Hale.
“It’s got to go to Senate Finance, the Senate floor, and then to the House, all through that process again. We’re in the first part of the game. We will continue to work the bill. Teachers are very, very frustrated, as frustrated as I have seen them since 1990. All options are on the table. At this point, we’re trying to work the bill.”
Asked pointedly if a strike is among those options, Hale told The Register-Herald, “I think everything is an option. We want to work the bill and see what we can get.”
Teachers struck two decades ago over a desired pay increase when Gaston Caperton was in his first term as governor.
“It’s too early in the game to be making those type of calls,” President Dale Lee of the WVEA said.
“Everything is on the table, as far as actions that can be taken. As an old basketball coach, this is the first 3 minutes of the first quarter. We’re not going to put our full court press on until the score is lopsided and we’re behind and we have to go to the pressure.”
Teachers picketed outside the Capitol a few hours before the Senate committee beat down four amendments — three of them by freshman Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming — and shipped the 189-page committee substitute on to Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion.
“Teachers are angry because of the lack of respect,” Lee said.
The WVEA leader said teachers are miffed over such provisions as Teach For America, the hiring practices and “the open-ended calendar, which means you can go on forever.”
“Nothing in this bill has the effect on student achievement reforms that should happen,” Lee said.
“This is not an education bill,” Hale said, as she and Lee awaited the Senate committee action.
“This is a teacher bashing bill.”
Hall wanted to totally eliminate the Teach For America clause, saying it doesn’t meet the administration’s goal of plugging up gaps in specific geographic regions, by allowing instructors lacking expertise in a particular field to teach.
“I don’t think we know enough about that right now,” Hall said of the organization.
“Ultimately, it’s just a short-term solution to a big problem.”
A second amendment he offered would have accepted Tomblin’s proposal to employ eight specific criteria in the hiring policy but to assure that all were given equal footing.
Seniority would still count but given no more consideration than the other seven, he emphasized.
Hall also sought to change the school calendar provision by stretching the time frame from 43 weeks to 46, allowing an extra 15 days to make up for lost instructional days.
“It still would give service personnel and teachers time if they want to do things in the summer months,” Hall explained.
“I felt like that was a good compromise.”
Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, who battled the teachers groups a few years ago over his support for charter schools, blasted the last amendment by Hall, saying teachers are paid for 200 days, sandwiched around 180 days of instruction.
“By putting a time frame on this, we run the risk of not making the 180 days,” he said.
“Not a person around this committee room who’s in business would be willing to pay somebody at full value for not getting a full value.”
If someone offered to produce 10 videos but came up two shy and insisted on full pay, “I’d say, you’re crazy,” the senator said.
“Why do we want to make a provision that runs the risk that we’re not going to get 180 days of classroom instruction?” he asked.
“When you are employed as a school teacher, or employed as school service personnel, your benefits come from taxpayers. Your retirement comes from taxpayers. We expect a job to be done. That’s 180 days of classroom instruction.”
All three amendments withered under a resounding voice vote, as did one offered by another freshman, Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, that would have given local school boards the ability to determine the length of planning periods.
“Let’s at least give control to the local entities to determine what works best for them,” he said.
“Maybe it’s 30 minutes, maybe 90 minutes. I’m just thinking the best place to make that decision is at the local entity, rather than mandating it from Charleston, which is the essence of our education audit.”
Education committee counsel Hank Hager went through the massive document, covering all the changes from the original bill Tomblin proposed last month.
One change defines that seven holidays in the existing calendar are paid days off and requires four, two-hour blocks for faculty-senate meetings, one to be held every 45 instruction days.
Another wrinkle actually turns the Teach For America into “a more generic term,” meaning that such organizations would have to meet certain requirements to fill holes in the classroom, he pointed out.
An alternative teaching certificate could be applied for teachers in specific geographic regions where the board has determined that severe shortages exist.
A local school board can post openings more than once, but only if fewer than three apply after the initial posting, Hager said. Another clause in the bill insists that time lost due to closings cannot be counted as days of employment.
Responding to a question by Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, he said the bill provides that time lost due to snow or other inclement weather conditions must be made up either on non-instructional days or out-of-calendar days.
The bill passed with four dissenting votes: Sens. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia; Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley; Chafin and Hall.
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