West Virginia’s three main public school worker unions asked Wednesday for Republican Gov. Jim Justice to cancel the special legislative session on education because Republican legislative leaders have continued saying they want to push for legalizing charter schools and non-public school vouchers.
But Brian Abraham, Justice’s general counsel, said Wednesday that the governor can’t do that. Justice called the session, but Abraham said lawmakers technically started it, then recessed, right after the end of the regular legislative session.
“He can’t cancel a session while they’re in it,” Abraham said.
The relevant section of the state constitution says: “The governor may, on extraordinary occasions convene, at his own instance, the Legislature,” and the Legislature then can’t do anything except what’s “in the proclamation by which it was called together.”
Also Wednesday, Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association union, mentioned rumored legislative plans to erase from state law much of Chapter 18A, which includes core school employee laws setting things like how much teachers and other workers must be paid, how many leave days they receive, how layoffs and position transfers must be handled, and how more senior employees must receive greater protection from layoffs and transfers.
In an email, House of Delegates spokesman Jared Hunt said, “Attorneys are in the beginning stages of reviewing the education code to identify areas of improvement and portions that are burdensome or no longer needed ... While it involves analyzing portions of Chapters 18 and 18A, this is not to repeal them entirely.”
State Board of Education President Dave Perry said Tuesday that House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, had legislative attorneys meet with state Department of Education attorneys that day, and Hanshaw appears to be pursuing a “major overhaul.” But Perry said he didn’t know what the speaker was going for.
Hunt said Hanshaw had no news conference Wednesday, as he had previously hoped, because he was sick.
In response to questioning from reporters Wednesday at the unions’ news conference in the state Capitol, Lee also said he’d support Justice instead narrowing the special session call to just address opioids, student support workers and more funding for counties with low student enrollment. The state school aid funding formula is largely based on enrollment.
“Narrow the call for those things that we know that everybody has consensus on,” Lee said. “Get those passed, get them out of the way, but if you’re going to look at contentious items, you’re wasting your money.”
Of lawmakers who may say action is needed now to address the opioid crisis’ impact on education, or to increase funding for lower-enrollment counties, Fred Albert, president of the state branch of the American Federation of Teachers union, said, “They had this opportunity in the last legislative session to resolve these issues. It was bad then. We asked them then to resolve those issues.”
“This needs time and we don’t want our taxpayers to bear the burden of a special session when our tax dollars, our resources, are so precious at this point,” Albert said.
Joe White, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, which includes cooks, bus drivers and other workers, said, “The opioid crisis didn’t start yesterday, it’s been going on for quite some time, and if they were really serious about doing something with the opioid issue and doing the 1,400 [student] minimum enrollment [funding level] for counties to help the counties, if they really wanted to do that, they could’ve done that.”
“But if you ask my personal opinion, they didn’t want to do that, that’s why they lumped it all in one huge bill and put a number on it so they could blame somebody for something that has not happened,” White said. “Don’t lump good and bad together and think that’s the way to go.”
The Republican-controlled House killed Senate Republicans’ so-called omnibus education bill, Senate Bill 451, during the regular legislative session.
The bill would have increased public school funding, including through a broad employee pay raise and more dollars to hire social workers, counselors and other student support personnel. It also would’ve done many other things, including legalize charter schools and vouchers.
Hunt said, “state Supreme Court case law gives the Legislature fairly broad discretion at how widely it can interpret a session call once it’s been issued. Beyond that, only the Legislature can adjourn a special session once it has convened.”
The state union leaders declined Wednesday to say whether they believe the authority they received to call a statewide strike, an authority derived from an employee vote during the regular session, is still effective for them to call a strike now or during the special session.
Hanshaw and Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, have called for the session to resume Monday, but this part of it may only focus on fixing bills that Justice vetoed based on technicalities. It could reconvene later.
White told lawmakers: “If the legislative leadership wants to bring up the same old same old, let’s do that in regular session. Let’s glove up and meet in January and let the bell ring. Don’t hide behind these walls in the summertime.”