CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Senate Finance Committee advanced Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform bill Thursday, though one senator grilled the state school board president about "ballooning" the board's staff.Tomblin's bill (SB359) requires the state Department of Education to cut personnel expenses by 5 percent next year and the year after.Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, questioned whether the state Board of Education would eliminate department positions, while increasing its own staff as part of a new office. Earlier this week, the state board hired an operations director at $104,000 a year, with plans to add a lawyer and policy director. The new hires will report to the state school board, not the state superintendent, who heads the Department of Education."It looks like a shell game," said Unger, who voted against Tomblin's bill. "It seems like you're adding another layer."An hour later, Unger took to the floor of the Senate chamber and called for an investigation into whether Linger and fellow state school board members could legally hire administrative staff under the state Constitution. "I think ... they may have overstepped their bounds," Unger said.School board President Wade Linger defended the board's decision to hire its own staff. He said the extra administrators are needed to handle conflicts with the Department of Education, and to oversee Regional Education Service Agencies and the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind."We have a board of education that's finally stepping up and performing the duties set forth in the [West Virginia] Constitution," Linger said.Unger told Linger the state school board could always fire the superintendent if board members had a dispute with the Department of Education. Last year, board members, led by Linger, fired then-Superintendent Jorea Marple."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."
For years, the board has employed an administrative assistant, but no additional staff members.Unger asked Linger whether the state board could shift staff from the department to the new board office and still comply with the bill's required 5 percent personnel reduction."I assume so," Linger said."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."Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, said the state board needed the extra administrators to handle additional board-related work, such as last year's response to a statewide education efficiency audit.And Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, said Linger's hiring plans mirrored what companies do to manage multiple divisions. "I think it's a great idea," Barnes said.
The Senate Finance Committee passed Tomblin's bill by a non-unanimous voice vote. Committee members learned the bill would reduce education costs by $630,000 next year, and $2.1 million the year after that."The bill is the first step," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Roman Prezioso. "It's important we keep the bill moving."Tomblin's bill next goes to the full Senate.West Virginia's teachers unions oppose the legislation. The bill would change the way teachers are hired and transferred, and give counties more flexibility in setting the yearly school calendar.Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.