By Mannix Porterfield
Miffed over the hiring of an operations director for the state Board of Education in the midst of a debate over education reform, Senate Majority Leader John Unger called Thursday for the nonpartisan election of its members.
Unger outlined his constitutional amendment an hour after the Senate Finance Committee approved SB359 with relative ease, setting up a full floor vote on it today.
Unger’s resolution calling for a voter decision on his proposed constitutional amendment was co-sponsored by Sens. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, and Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier.
In the finance meeting, Unger clashed with Wade Linger, the president of the state board, after learning that only a day earlier it had hired a director at an annual pay rate of $104,000, by shifting money from the Department of Education.
Unger scoffed at this as a “shell game,” noting the reform bill advanced by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin specifies 5 percent budget cuts in the DOE over the next two years.
“We’ve been picking on teachers a while,” Unger said, shortly before the brief floor session.
“We ought to spread the blame out a little bit. Why are we 49th in education? Let’s start at the top and work our way down.”
Unger said the state board is defined as the “fourth branch” of West Virginia government, but unlike the other three, its members aren’t elected and therefore unaccountable to the public.
“We make policy, we’re held accountable,” said Unger, D-Berkeley, in promoting his proposed amendment.
“We already elect county boards of education and they’re held accountable.”
Unger quizzed Linger at length about the hiring of an operations director, and learned that the board intends to hire two other people soon — an attorney and a policy director.
The majority leader initially raised the issue with Schools Superintendent James Phares, after he described the operations director as a liaison between the board and the DOE.
“I thought you were the liaison,” Unger shot back.
With Linger, the senator wondered how the hiring was authorized, and the board president said it is spelled out in the state Constitution. Justifying the hiring, he said a number of responsibilities call for such a position.
At one point, Education Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, told Unger that the hiring in no way figures in the fiscal note, which Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, described afterward as “neutral.”
“It’s difficult to cut zero,” Linger told Unger.
“The state BOE is attempting to add a staffer so we can effectively do our job which has not been possible in the past.”
Unger persisted, asking, “You don’t have to answer up to the governor?”
“I didn’t write the Constitution,” the board president replied.
“What would stop you all from hiring more people as you go along?” Unger returned.
“The budget,” Linger said. “We can’t do anything that there’s no money to do.”
“You can shift money around?” Unger continued.
“The superintendent can move money around appropriately,” Linger said.
“We’re not trying to slide around through the system. We’re up front asking for the (positions) and that’s why we’re having this conversation now.”
Unger said he found it difficult to see why the board, with a superintendent and support staff, needs more people.
“There’s a whole bunch of staff over there,” the senator said.
“You would assume we and the BOE are the same thing, and we are not,” Linger said.
Once that line of questioning ended, the committee agreed to pass out the measure, with four dissenting votes — Unger, and Sens. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, and Jack Yost, D-Brooke.
Earlier, the Senate education panel toiled through a number of intense hearings before passing out the bill — one that has raised the ire of the West Virginia Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. The two groups say the bill falls woefully shy of Tomblin’s goal of improving student achievement and merely punishes teachers.
Prezioso noted SB359 was thoroughly scrutinized by the education committee.
“Education did all the work,” he said.
“They did the policy. We did the fiscal part of it. I think everybody had a chance to interact, all the special interest groups. Our mission was simply to identify the fiscal responsibilities in it and move it forward to the whole body.”
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