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John Treu WV Academy

John Treu, a West Virginia University professor who is the board president of West Virginia Academy, a proposed charter school, speaks at a public forum on the proposal Thursday. This slide noted the bipartisan support for nonprofit charter schools, though support from Democrats cooled amid the most recent national primary.

MORGANTOWN — A group is seeking to open next fall what may become West Virginia’s first charter school, and it will most likely be in Monongalia County.

That’s according to John Treu, a West Virginia University assistant professor of accounting and chairman of the board of West Virginia Academy, the proposed new school.

Treu, while he said the school is planned for the “greater Morgantown area,” said it’s likely to also draw students from neighboring Preston County and, possibly, Marion County.

The state Department of Education’s spokeswoman and the president of West Virginia’s arm of the American Federation of Teachers union said they weren’t aware of any other proposed charter schools that submitted applications by the August deadline to open next school year.

Eddie Campbell, superintendent of Monongalia’s public school system, said Greenbrier County got one.

The local Board of Education, which runs the public schools, has to decide whether or not to approve the charter school. Monongalia’s hasn’t yet decided.

Treu said his school’s “primary recruitment area” would stretch from Westover, in Monongalia, to Bruceton Mills, in rural Preston, capturing most of the northern part of the Morgantown area along the way. Addressing a fairness concern charter school opponents have raised, it says it’s providing bus transportation — something West Virginia’s charter school law doesn’t require.

Though the school, according to its application for creation, plans to start with just grades kindergarten-8, it plans to have all the way up to 12th grade by its fifth year of operation. It would serve 1,420 students at maximum.

It would be the second school in the state to have an International Baccalaureate program, after South Charleston High, and the second to have a “year-round” calendar, after Piedmont Elementary, in Kanawha County. This means a shorter summer with longer mid-year breaks, with supplemental instruction during those.

And Treu said the school plans to pay teachers what they would make, based on their years of experience and degree levels, in the public school system, to start off. They would then earn merit pay increases based on their performance, he said.

Treu said the plan is to typically pay teachers more than they would make in the public school district.

He said seniority has little to do with performance.

But, at a public forum on the proposal Thursday at Monongalia’s University High School, several opponents pointed out where most of the money for all this would come from: the current public school system.

“You say you value public schools,” speaker Audra Slocum said in the auditorium, filled with about 100 attendees. “But you are here, by design, to extract money from them.”

West Virginia funds public school districts, and charter schools, based largely on their enrollment, so students lost to a charter school shift money to it and away from the district.

Treu didn’t deny this, but said “I think there are reasons why Monongalia County makes a lot of sense for a charter. A charter would be less disruptive to the existing public schools just because we have an existing population that’s large enough.”

Campbell said he couldn’t give a ballpark estimate of how much money his school system would lose if West Virginia Academy were to open.

The state’s 2019 omnibus education law (HB 206) prompted a statewide public school worker strike before being watered down. While the legislation lost its private school vouchers and other provisions, when Republicans finally pushed it across the finish line, it still legalized the state’s first charter schools.

So it might be expected that Thursday’s public forum was a politicized environment. At least seven of the roughly 40 people attending an opposing rally before the forum were Democratic candidates for office, including gubernatorial candidate Ben Salango.

Salango noted that Republican Gov. Jim Justice had said he opposed charter schools, but ended up signing the bill legalizing them.

Tega Toney, vice president of the AFT-WV union, noted the charter school board hasn’t run a charter school before.

“I would not send my child to a pediatrician who has never seen a patient,” she said.

But Katie Switzer, a parent, said “we have to try something new, we can’t do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.”

Research says that, broadly, charter schools perform no better or worse than traditional public schools. But, like with public schools, performance differs from charter school to charter school.

Monongalia is home WVU, the fast-growing (relative to West Virginia) city of Morgantown, and a public school system that already scores among the highest statewide on standardized tests.

So, many asked, why is Treu trying to open one in Monongalia?

“The members of our board are all parents of students in Monongalia County and the surrounding area in Morgantown,” Treu said in an interview before the forum. And he said existing high performance doesn’t prevent improvement.

The teachers at the school will also be employed at-will, lacking many employment protections provided by existing public schools.

“We think the vast majority of teachers are great, but sometimes you have bad teachers,” Treu said. “There’s not a ton of them.”

When teaching things like math, where one idea builds on the one before, Treu said “one bad teacher can actually harm students more than a lot of good teachers can help them.”

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