West Virginia lawmakers have voted to disassemble the state’s Department of Education and the Arts in the wake of a weeks-long battle with public service employees that saw West Virginia’s teachers walk out of classrooms leaving schools closed for nearly two weeks in demands for higher pay.
Teachers walked out of schools on February 22 demanding higher pay and a full-funding of the Public Employees Insurance Agency, after weeks of protests and failed negotiations. They were demanding a 5% pay increase but the state legislature was only willing to grant a 4% hike. Teachers from all fifty-five West Virginia counties struck, shutting down schools and locking students out of their classrooms for nine school days.
West Virginia teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation.
Lawmakers eventually capitulated and granted the educators the 5% raise after a bipartisan, bicameral conference committee of six state lawmakers met to try and hammer out an agreement. The morning after that committee met, an agreement was reached that would grant teachers their desired raises. Teachers returned to work the next day.
A few days later the West Virginia State Senate voted on the bill, House Bill 4006, that devolves the Department of Education and the Arts and reallocates its divisions to other state agencies. The Senate passed it 18-15 on Friday and the W.Va. House of Delegates passed the bill yesterday by a vote of 60-36. The votes were mostly along party lines with most Republicans supporting the reorganization and most Democrats opposing.
The bill also eliminates the position of the secretary of the department and it’s $95,000-budeted salary. The current Secretary of Education and the Arts is Gayle Manchin, wife of U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WVa), who is running for reelection this year.
Lawmakers who were against the proposal expressed concern at the new organization and the potential impact it will have on the efficacy of education and arts programs in the state.
“Where in the world are these programs going to go?” State Delegate Larry Rowe, a Democrat said from the House floor yesterday. “It’s premature, it’s unnecessary, it’s not helpful, it’s created a budget upside down mess. We’re killing the arts in West Virginia by eliminating the advocacy of the secretary.”
Lawmakers who supported the bill argued that the criticism is overblown, and the State Schools Superintendent Steve Paine wrote a letter last week, the day the bill hit the House floor stating programs won’t be affected apart from a shift in their oversight.
The bill, Paine wrote, “provides the opportunity to restructure education programming for the sake of coordinated delivery and gaining efficiencies.”
“Please rest assured that, should it be the will of the Legislature to transfer various programs and services currently operated and administered by the EA [Education and the Arts] to the WVDE [West Virginia Department of Education], such initiatives will continue without interruption,” he added.
The bill now goes to Republican Governor Jim Justice’s desk where he can sign it into law or veto it. The Governor, under West Virginia Law, can also let it become law without his signature.
Justice has not indicated which way he is leaning but did express reservations about signing the bill if he finds its goals to be political.
“I’m not going to tell you, you know, one way or another, because I think it’d be unwise from the standpoint of what I’ll do without reading it and, you know, and seeing what it is,” Justice said.
“I hope to goodness that this is not a targeted move at Gayle Manchin, rather than what is the smart thing we should be doing. If there are real savings and I don’t really think that it is a targeting toward Gayle Manchin, then I’ll sign it,” he said.