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Kanawha superintendent plans to keep schools open if strike comes

Kanawha County’s public schools superintendent told principals Wednesday he plans to try to keep schools open if a strike happens this year.

Superintendent Ron Duerring, along with the superintendents of West Virginia’s 54 other countywide school systems, officially closed schools before each of all nine school days during last year’s work stoppage.

It was the first statewide public school workers strike in state history. School employees, who gathered by the thousands in the state Capitol for days on end, didn’t have to form picket lines around schools in their home counties because the schools were closed.

When counties announced these closures last year, several specifically indicated they were shuttering because they didn’t think enough workers would be there to safely operate schools.

Kanawha school system Communications Director Briana Warner wrote in an email Wednesday that “this is being planned for so that we can keep our students in school learning, if possible.”

“Every step will be taken to keep students safe and secure,” Warner said. “If we cannot ensure the safety and security of students at a particular school or county-wide, we will not be able to have students in our care. These decisions will be made day-by-day, as needed.”

Her email didn’t include further details of what the operating plan on strike days may entail.

Kanawha Board of Education President Ryan White said Duerring told him Wednesday that he doesn’t plan to close schools during a strike.

White said he didn’t know exactly why Duerring told principals Wednesday he didn’t plan to close schools.

White said “to my knowledge, there’s not been a call to actually go out yet, so I don’t think that there’s a need to discuss why — I mean, at this point in time, until we know whether that’s going to happen or what will happen.”

He declined to comment on his personal position.

The statewide leaders of West Virginia’s three biggest school workers unions haven’t yet called for a strike, though they announced Saturday that school workers “overwhelmingly” voted to authorize an unspecified work action at an unspecified time under unspecified circumstances. The statewide leaders didn’t release the specific vote results.

The bill (Senate Bill 451) that’s been generating anger among public school workers passed the state Senate Monday of last week. On Wednesday, delegates were altering their version in amendment stage on the floor of the full House of Delegates.

The legislation, at least the version of it that the House debated amendments to Wednesday, would provide the pay raises that Republican leaders promised a month before the November elections, when voters chose to preserve GOP majorities in both houses of the Legislature. It’d also provide tens of millions of dollars more to public schools, including funding an estimated 390 more student support workers, such as social workers and psychologists.

But it’d also, among many other things, legalize charter schools in West Virginia and allow county boards of education to downplay the role years of experience play in which workers can be laid off or transferred to other positions when school systems make those decisions.

The Senate version also says teachers wouldn’t be paid for instructional days missed due to a strike that aren’t made up, even if superintendents officially close school on those days.

The Senate version would also give parents $3,200 annually per child to provide them tutoring, private-, online- or home-schooling or other things, so long as the student isn’t a full-time public schooler. It’d allow up to 2,500 students at any one time to have these “education savings accounts.”

West Virginia Education Association union President Dale Lee said it’s Duerring’s “prerogative to do what he sees fit, just like it’s our prerogative to do what we see fit.”

“We’re not going to release a game plan until it’s time to act,” Lee said. “... Our members are watching the action and we’re listening to our members.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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