West Virginia Senate Republicans amended their sweeping education overhaul bill Sunday to specify that public worker strikes are unlawful, that school workers can be fired if they strike, that school employees’ pay can be withheld on strike days and that county superintendents can’t close schools in anticipation of a strike or to help a strike.
The amendment comes after two statewide public school workers strikes in as many years. All county superintendents closed schools before each strike day in both years, except for Putnam County Superintendent John Hudson, who kept schools open this year despite most employees not showing up for work.
Senators approved the amendment by a 17-14 vote. All the Democrats in attendance voted no, as did Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur. Three senators were absent: Kenny Mann, R-Monroe; Mark Maynard, R-Wayne; and Robert Plymale, D-Wayne.
The House of Delegates, which would have to pass the same version of the bill for it to go to Republican Gov. Jim Justice for his signature or veto, isn’t scheduled to reconvene until June 17.
The Student Success Act would, among many other things, legalize charter schools, raise public school worker pay and lower the amount of daily instructional time students are currently guaranteed.
The Republican-controlled House of Delegates killed Senate Republicans’ last “omnibus” education bill (Senate Bill 451) in February, on the first day of this year’s two-day strike.
Also Sunday, the Senate had its official “first reading” of another controversial bill (Senate Bill 1040), which would create non-public school vouchers, called “education savings accounts.”
Bills have to be read on three separate days, so unless four-fifths of the Senate agrees to suspend that rule, this reconvening of the special legislative session on education will have to continue through Tuesday.
“We’ll be here until we vote on the ESA bill,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson.
Sunday also saw Carmichael send to the Judiciary and Finance committees a resolution that would put before voters a proposed state constitutional amendment.
If approved, the amendment — sponsored by Republican Sens. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley; Greg Boso, R-Nicholas; and Sue Cline, R-Wyoming — would allow the state Legislature to amend and outright reject policies that the state Board of Education passes.
The West Virginia Constitution and past state Supreme Court rulings give the state school board significant power over education — possibly including the ability to ignore many of the laws the Legislature has passed or could pass.
The Senate hasn’t yet used any regular committees during this special session, and Carmichael said the proposal will take days to vet and he doesn’t plan to further extend the special session just to work on it.
There were far fewer public school workers demonstrating at the state Capitol on Sunday as compared to Saturday, the first day that Carmichael reconvened the special session.
For part of Sunday’s Senate floor session, workers filled galleries above the chamber, but the chanting crowd in front of the chamber doors didn’t materialize in force like Saturday and past strike days.
As for the new anti-strike provisions, Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan and sponsor of the amendment that added them, said the amendment would mean “a codification of what is the current law of West Virginia.”
A 1990 state Supreme Court decision didn’t go into possible consequences for teachers, but it upheld a Jefferson County court’s preliminary injunction to end a strike there, saying that “Public employees have no right to strike in the absence of express legislation or, at the very least, appropriate statutory provisions for collective bargaining, mediation, and arbitration.”
“This is retribution,” said Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. “I don’t know what else to call it.”
Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, said stopping county superintendents from closing schools in regards to strikes limits the local flexibility that Republicans have been advocating.
The governor spoke with Republicans and then Democrats behind closed doors before the floor session started, but some lawmakers from both parties seemed confused as to why.
“We appreciate his opinion and his input,” Carmichael said. “But, uh, you know, the ball is pretty far down the road.”
“I’m puzzled as to why he was even there,” said Blair. “It was unnecessary, I don’t know why he’s here, period.”
“It was quite unusual,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion. “He comes in, you know, a couple hours before session and wants to talk to the senators. ... We walked out wondering just why we talked to the governor.”
Justice was the one who called the special session on education, and he gave lawmakers broad latitude on what they could do in it by allowing them to consider matters “relating generally to improving, modifying, and making efficiencies to the state’s public education system and employee compensation.”
He said Sunday he didn’t regret calling the session, because he has promised school workers a pay raise.