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W.Va. Dept. of Education still hasn’t answered science standards questions

West Virginia Department of Education officials still haven’t answered questions on who there specifically signed off on controversial, and now-retracted, modifications to proposed new standards on teaching climate change,

The department has also now twice delayed an open records request on the subject filed in early January. The lack of response to the Charleston Gazette’s questions continues as the state school board nears its expected vote next month to adopt a version of new K-12 science standards without the much-maligned global warming modifications.

After school board member Wade Linger expressed concerns to the department about the teaching of climate change, department employees had placed the alterations into a draft of the larger science teaching standards that the board was set to adopt.

Linger has said he doesn’t believe human-influenced climate change is a “foregone conclusion.” The peer-reviewed science overwhelmingly shows that human greenhouse gas emissions are a major driver of global warming. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released dire reports about climate change impacts with a more than 95 percent certainty that humans are the main cause.

In December, the board voted to adopt a set of the new Next Generation Science Standards with the global warming changes. But, after the Gazette reported on them, the changes received local and national criticism from teachers, professors and others who said they sowed unwarranted doubt in the well-established theory that greenhouse gas emissions are driving global warming. The West Virginia Science Teachers Association said they compromised and misrepresented climate science.

Last month, the board voted to withdraw the full set of standards and put out a draft without the controversial alterations for 30-day public comment.

The Gazette asked in early January for more specifics on who at the department vetted and ultimately approved placing the modifications -- which only affected a few lines and were apparently unnoticed by some school board members -- into the 70-page standards document before the board approved it. The newspaper never received answers, and department spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro told a reporter he’d have to submit a Freedom of Information Act request for certain information.

On Jan. 6, the Gazette sent the FOIA, requesting, among other things, “copies of all written or digital communication from July 1, 2014, to Jan. 6, 2015, between Department of Education staff members and state school board members” concerning the standards.

The Gazette also requested “copies of all written or digital communication from July 1, 2014, to Jan. 6, 2015, among Department of Education staff members concerning changes that were made to the ... standards dealing with climate change in response to board member Wade Linger’s concerns about the standards’ original drafted language.”

The department responded on Jan. 13, saying that on Feb. 3, the Gazette could inspect or copy any of the requested records “not privileged or exempted by law.” Copies would cost 40 cents a page. It said on or before Feb. 3, the newspaper would be told “the cost to produce the requested documents, and the location where the documents may be inspected or obtained.”

But on Feb. 2, the department sent another letter stating that, “due to a larger than normal volume of Freedom of Information Act requests,” the records would now be available on or before Friday -- three weeks later than the original date. Yet on Friday, the department emailed the Gazette another delay notice, saying that because of the volume of FOIA requests “coupled with other unanticipated issues in the Office of Legal Services” at the department, the documents would now be available on or before March 13.

“We apologize for this additional delay and will not alter our production date again,” the letter stated.

The school board usually meets on the second Wednesday of each month, with long agendas sometimes spilling over into Thursday. March 13 would be the Friday after the normal meeting next month, in which the board is expected to adopt the standards.

After a reporter said that date would be unacceptable, Cordeiro apologized and wrote via text that the department would provide the information no later than March 9 -- two days before the expected vote.

The Gazette has tried get answers directly from department officials. After state Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano spoke at a Jan. 12 legislative meeting, the Gazette asked him whether he ultimately signed off on the modified climate change standards before the board voted on them. He said he didn’t know at the time, and Betty Jo Jordan, his executive assistant, told a reporter to send her an email.

The newspaper has received no response to that email.

The 30-day public comment period on the science standards ended last week.

Climate Parents, a national nonprofit that spoke out against the standards modifications, has seen its West Virginia membership grow from about 200 before the controversy to 1,800 today, said director and co-founder Lisa Hoyos. During the public comment period, the organization submitted more than 5,700 comments in support of the current draft version of West Virginia science standards, which doesn’t include the global warming modifications.

John Friedrich, senior campaigner for Climate Parents, said the comments came from residents of West Virginia and other states.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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