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WV education leaders meet behind closed doors on charter schools

Blennerhasset Hotel

Education officials gathered at the Blennerhassett Hotel, in Parkersburg, to discuss charter schools last week.

PARKERSBURG — West Virginia Department of Education officials, a state Board of Education member and the schools superintendents of counties including Monongalia and Cabell met behind closed doors Wednesday.

Charter schools were the discussion topic, several attendees said.

Jim Wilson, the attending state school board member, said it was “just a preliminary discussion of setting up a policy for charter schools — what people need to know, what they want to know.”

Deputy state Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch, the education department’s No. 2 official, said the Gazette-Mail wasn’t allowed into the meeting at Parkersburg’s Blennerhassett Hotel.

“It’s not a public meeting,” Burch said.

When asked how many county superintendents would be there, he said, “doesn’t matter, it’s our meeting, bud, it’s not an open thing.”

Burch and county schools superintendents’ annual salaries all exceed $100,000 each, so the combined, publicly funded yearly salaries of the attendees easily exceeded half a million dollars.

Republican lawmakers and Gov. Jim Justice passed into law this summer House Bill 206, which, among many other things, allows West Virginia’s first charter schools.

Nonprofits and companies whose boards aren’t elected can run charter schools. These schools can be exempt from many regulations, including employee benefits, rights and protections that unions want to maintain.

West Virginia’s law, however, generally allows county boards of education to have the final say on whether charter schools can open in their counties, so school boards could control local charter schools through this authority.

The law says all state school board rules required by the law’s main charter school section “shall be promulgated on or before January 1, 2020.” The state board must vote to put proposed policies out for at least a 30-day public comment period, and then must finally vote on enacting policies.

Often, legislators pass laws and leave it to state agencies to develop rules fleshing out the details of those laws.

But, unlike for other agencies’ rules, legislators can’t reject or amend the state school board’s rules, and legal precedent suggests the state board’s rules might even be able to trump legislators’ laws.

Last month, state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine suggested to state board members that “we need to gather some information, put it in a draft of some sort in terms of policy, and we want to have that to you by October — it’s a swift timeline — and build an extra month in for a lot of discussion because this will be a hot topic.”

“We want to have teacher organizations, principals, local boards, you know, higher education, lots of people in a room and have a representative sample of people to have the discussions,” Paine told the state board. “We’ll put people in there that are on both sides of the issue and just deal with them. That’s the only way I know to do it, is just to have those frank discussions and make sure they’re civil and make sure everyone has a chance to be heard, and then give you that information.”

Education department Communications Executive Director Kristin Anderson said the October policy will be a public draft, and the state board is expected to put proposals officially out for public comment in November.

Despite the January policy deadline, the law says charter schools can’t start operating here until the school year after next.

Including lunch, the meeting lasted from noon to about 3 p.m. Meeting attendees also included:

  • Blaine Hess, president of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators and Jackson County’s schools superintendent
  • Susan Collins, executive director of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators
  • Howard O’Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Board Association
  • Kim Miller, Ohio County’s schools superintendent
  • Sarah Koegler, an Ohio County school board member and a senior managing director and human resources business partner with Teach for America
  • Steve Chancey, a Jackson County school board member (though he said he was only staying for lunch)
  • Carla Warren, special assistant to the state superintendent

After the meeting ended, Monongalia schools Superintendent Eddie Campbell said education department officials “just kind of reviewed the legislation with us” regarding charter schools.

Campbell said they provided no information on what kind of policy they plan to write.

“Everything was real general, just about the legislation and just outlining the fact that they have to write one,” Campbell said.

He said his county’s school board and school system have had “zero discussion” about implementing a charter school.

Cabell schools Superintendent Ryan Saxe was invited to the meeting by education department staff, according to Cabell schools communications director Jedd Flowers.

Flowers wrote in an email that Saxe said he was told the meeting was to provide input for a policy to guide school systems on the charter school law.

Wilson, the state board member, said education department officials asked the schools superintendents what they needed to know.

He said he didn’t choose to have the meeting either public or private, but didn’t disagree with keeping it closed.

“You know, sometimes you wanna tell someone they’re full of s**t, and, you know, you don’t say those things,” Wilson said of keeping the meeting closed. “It gives a more freeflowing discussion, you’re not making any decisions, you’re not making any grand pronouncements or anything, you’re just disseminating and gathering information.”

National charter school group has concerns

West Virginia’s law requires the state board to “consult with nationally recognized charter school organizations.”

During the Republican-controlled Legislature’s consideration of charter schools over the past few years, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has been the most visible such group lobbying lawmakers.

“They’re less than enamored with our bill,” Paine, the state superintendent, said last month. “We have a very watered-down charter school bill, quite frankly. They’re a little bit perturbed.”

“I don’t know if we gained anything from our conversation with them,” he said. “They don’t seem to be too interested in working with the bill, I guess. They’re interested but — you know what I’m saying — they’re just not too enamored with it. They don’t think it’s going to work.”

On June 28, the day Justice announced he had signed the charter school law, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools sent out a news release titled, “West Virginia Misses Opportunity to Create High-Quality Schools for the State’s Neediest Students.”

Todd Ziebarth, a senior vice president with the group, said Thursday that he, the group’s president and one of its lobbyists did speak with Paine.

“It was very much us saying our opinions about the bill are clear,” Ziebarth said. “But at the same time, we’re just offering our help as they take on this task of writing the rules and regulations.”

He said his group’s main concern with the law is that, except in cases of state takeovers, it allows county boards of education to make the final decision on whether a charter school can open in their county.

That, he said, can’t be changed through the state board’s regulations. But he said regulations might be able to set “guardrails” and accountability for online charter schools, which the law could allow.

Online, or virtual, charter schools have had poor academic outcomes in other states. The state education department had recommended legislators ban them completely.

“[The law] creates conditions for operators to do what they’ve done in other states,” Ziebarth said, “which is go to a small, financially struggling school district, say, ‘Hey, authorize a school, we will be able to serve students from across the state and we will give you a cut.’”

“Small districts have very little capacity to oversee what, in some cases, are schools serving thousands of students across the state,” he said.

Regarding why his group doesn’t like elected county school board members having the final say on allowing charter schools, Ziebarth said there need to be “checks and balances.”

He advocated for allowing other entities, like colleges or the state school board, to approve charter schools outright, or allowing county school board decisions to be appealed.

In West Virginia, members of the state school board and college boards of governors aren’t elected. Instead, the governor nominates members and state senators decide whether to approve the nominees.

“Oftentimes, there is a connection to democratically elected individuals,” Ziebarth said. “At the same time, charter schools themselves, you can’t get any more local control than a group of parents and teachers and community members starting a school in their community.”

He also said that in “a lot of states, the democratically elected thing is a bit of a red herring because the turnout is often incredibly small in local school board elections,” and many votes are turned out by unions, so “there’s a huge conflict of interest there.”

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

Funerals for Thursday, November 14, 2019

Adkins, Patricia - 1 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Breeden, Robert - 1 p.m., Tyler Mountain Funeral Home, Cross Lanes.

Edwards, Charles - Noon, Koontz Funeral Home, Hamlin.

Tapley, Myrna - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

White, Patrick - 8 p.m., Allen Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Whited, Ralph - 11 a.m., John H. Taylor Funeral Home, Spencer.

Williams, Henry - 11 a.m., Bartlett-Nichols Funeral Home, St. Albans.