photo by: Photo courtesy of WV Legislative Photography
CHARLESTON – Wednesday was a day of firsts for the West Virginia Board of Education: a new state superintendent of schools, two new board members and a visit by the state’s lieutenant governor pledging to work with board members and focus on public education.
The Board of Education met Wednesday for its regular monthly meeting at the offices of the Department of Education. First on the agenda were remarks from Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley.
Speaking on the topic of “Working Together to Improve Education,” Blair said it was his first time attending a state Board of Education meeting, something he wants to change.
“We want to give you the resources and work with you,” Blair told board members. “We want to be there to help. We don’t want to be a hindrance. We’ve been painted into the corner in the past where it was you versus us. Let’s let that day be over. It’s unnecessary. We all want to row the boat in the same direction.”
Blair said after focusing the last few years on expanding school choice options in the state, lawmakers now want to turn their attention to working with the state Board of Education to improve outcomes for students in the public school system.
The new focus comes as the board and the Department of Education turn a new leaf. Paul Hardesty, a former Logan County Board of Education member and president and a former Democratic state senator, was elected as president of the state board in July.
Since then, the board selected David Roach, a former teacher and county school administrator and most recently executive director of the School Building Authority, as state superintendent of schools in August.
“When this board hired Mr. Roach at our last meeting, I asked the public and the media to judge him on his credentials,” Hardesty said. “There’s not much he has not done. The one thing I’m really excited about is I think he shares the same vision that I have, and this board has.”
The board also welcomed new members, the former SBA member Victor Gabriel and Chris Stansbury, a former Republican House of Delegates member from Kanawha County and a former board member of the conservative Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy. They replace former board members Miller Hall and Tom Campbell.
According to a report released Wednesday by the COVID-19 School Data Hub, students in West Virginia saw extreme drops in ELA and math proficiency due to school shutdowns in 2020 and 2021 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Math and ELA proficiency scores for West Virginia students in 2021 dropped by 9.5% from 2019 pre-pandemic levels. Proficiency scores improved slightly in 2022, coming in at 5.7% below 2019 levels.
Hardesty said his goal during his term as state board president will be re-focusing the efforts of the Department of Education and county school boards towards improving proficiency scores.
“We’re going to get back to the basics,” Hardesty said. “We’re going to go back to reading, writing, math, and English Language Arts as our core. We’re going to focus on student achievement. I’ve asked David to come join me in this journey. I’m willing to look at the people of West Virginia, and if I fail at this, I’ll take the blame. But we’ve got to get back to the basics.”
Blair said the Legislature shares the same goal. Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, was appointed as the new chair of the Senate Education Committee. Grady has been a public school teacher since 2007, teaching fourth grade for more than 12 years. Blair said Grady is the first teacher to chair the Senate Education Committee in more than 50 years.
Blair hopes having a public school employee as education chair will help open a dialogue between public school workers and the Legislature to make needed improvements that can help teachers, school service personnel, and administrators do their jobs better.
“I look forward to the Legislature and the state Board of Ed, county boards of ed, teachers, school services personnel administrators all having a direct pipeline together, working together to do the one thing we all care about, and that is to educate our students,” Blair said. “Our job is to make sure they have employment when they get out. Your job is to make sure they’re not ranked dead last or close to last.”
Grady replaces Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, as Senate Education Committee chair. Blair is on the record saying the move had been planned for a while, but it was announced after Rucker said she would challenge Blair later this year for the Senate presidency.
The Senate voted Tuesday to create the new Select Committee on Alternative Educational Opportunities, which will be chaired by Rucker. The committee will focus on the Legislature’s efforts over the last several years to create the state’s first public charter school pilot project, the Hope Scholarship education savings account program under injunction while a lawsuit is pending before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and the expansion of micro-schools and learning pods.
Blair has said that replacing Rucker with Grady is not retribution for Rucker challenging for president. While complimentary of her time as Senate Education Committee chair, Blair said the new select committee will allow Rucker to continue her work with school choice in West Virginia.
“(Rucker) did absolutely nothing wrong for this, but the times are different. The times are changing. You adapt. I’m not going to send a welder in to do an electrician’s job,” Blair said. “The reason for it is the work that we’ve done over the last six to seven years we want to make sure that is followed through on and is successful. We believe that there is a competitive environment, and if you have a competitive environment, a rising tide lifts all boats, and it brings them up.”
Voters will also have two opportunities on Tuesday, Nov. 8, to approve two constitutional amendments that could affect how education is regulated and funded in West Virginia. Amendment 4 would give the Legislature rule-making authority to approve or reject regulations developed by the Department of Education. Amendment 2 would give lawmakers the authority to reduce or eliminate six categories of tangible personal property taxes.
County governments and county school systems rely on property taxes for funding, with more than $515 million in tangible personal property taxes, such as manufacturing, equipment and inventory taxes, assessed during tax year 2021. Senate Republicans have developed a plan to replace the tax revenue with funding direct from the general revenue budget, using a formula to fund counties with at least $1 million more than their county assessed tangible personal property tax values.
“Amendment 2 is not going to hurt any county board of education or any county,” Blair said. “We believe in the State of West Virginia that the personal property tax amendment will pass.”
The West Virginia Association of Counties and the County Commissioner Association of West Virginia last week opposed Amendment 2. The West Virginia Association of School Administrators came out against Amendment 2 in July.