Lawmakers talking about ‘omnibus bill,’ which could bring lots of changes to state’s education system

CHARLESTON — Talk in the state Capitol hallways has been about a possible bill that would roll in a variety of changes to West Virginia’s education system.

Such a bill might include provisions allowing educators to bank personal days while also rolling in measures allowing charter schools or education savings accounts.

Most believe the “omnibus education bill,” as it’s been termed, would flow through the Senate, starting with the education committee.

“It’ll come up very soon,” said state Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, a member of Senate Education. “I’m not sure if it’ll be this week. If it’s not this week, it’ll be next week, I’m sure.”

On Monday, lawmakers had letters placed on their desks by a range of education associations. Among the messages was the associations of teachers, principals and service personnel oppose the bundling approach to an education bill.

“Education employees, as well as the public, deserve an open and transparent path to proposals becoming law,” the associations wrote.

“We believe unrelated items should be voted on separately and they should pass or fail based on their own merits. We also believe coupling unrelated items into a single bill violates the ‘single object’ provision of the constitution, thereby effectively killing the bill.”

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said he believes education initiatives should be considered separately.

“We hear there is one omnibus bill, and what we’re saying is twofold: One, if these are such great education ideas then they should be able to stand on their own. So have everything stand on their own, including the pay raise.

“Secondly, there’s some question in our mind whether it’s constitutional or not.”

A single-subject rule stipulates that legislation may deal with only one issue.

“They’re in so many different sections of the code, statute,” Lee said, referring to the various initiatives that might be bundled. “I’m not sure you can make one omnibus bill like that.”

The letter from educator associations encouraged passage of the salary increase proposed by Gov. Jim Justice, an influx of at least $100 million to public employees insurance and the proposal to allow employees to bank their sick days to use them as credit upon retirement.

The education associations have been resistant to measures such as charter schools or education savings accounts.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael has expressed enthusiasm for such possibilities, sending out an opinion piece to newspapers. That commentary linked teacher pay raises and the other initiatives in consecutive paragraphs.

“Teachers are the key components in an effective education and must be competitively compensated. These pay raises and benefit enhancements represent the largest compensation improvement in state history,” wrote Carmichael, R-Jackson.

“In addition, we should consider concepts that other states have used to improve student achievement such as empowering parents and students with options that better serve their needs, charter schools, and Education Savings Accounts.”

Prior to the session’s start, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw was more guarded in his support of charter schools.

Hanshaw did not specify support for charter schools, though.

“I support any meaningful education reform,” said Hanshaw, R-Clay.

“People mean different things when they use that term,” he said.

Lee said he senses more support in the Senate for such changes than in the House.

“We feel the House is looking at things a little more logically in ways that are trying to improve education for all students in West Virginia, not just a slight few,” Lee said.

Justice, meanwhile, made his position on charter schools clear prior to the start of the session.

“I’m not for that,” the governor said when asked about the possibility during a press conference.

“When you have the governor saying they’re not for it, and it’s not really a big item for the House leadership at this point, it should tell you it’s just wrong for West Virginia,” Lee said.

Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker said rolling a variety of education changes into one bill allows for all to be debated at once.

“You could do individual bills — one by one by one by one,” she said. “But we run out of time and there’s a time component to all these things. If we know we’re going to do a really transformative thing that’s going to help our students, help our counties, I would rather see a measure we can argue all together and get it all done.

“We’re flexible. There are things that could come out; there are things that could go in. I am seeking input from my fellow legislators still to see that we get as good a bill as possible.”

Rucker said the bill may include the teacher pay raises, other funding increases for counties, initiatives meant to provide more flexibility in classrooms and measures allowing counties to pay different wages for different jobs.

“The most important thing is to let educators do their job,” said Rucker, R-Jefferson. “Give them the tools they need to raise student outcomes, support the teachers and make the decisions that are best for them instead of a one-size-fits-all bureaucracy from on high.”

Roberts said he’ll support the bill when it comes through the education committee. He’d like to see the changes all in one bill.

“I think it’s a great idea because if we just keep nitpicking little by little with each of the bills then it’s going to take us forever to get education reform,” Roberts said. “We need it now. We don’t need to wait 10 years down the road. We’ve already waited all these years.

“So what we’re trying to do in the Senate is to try to move through and break open the education reform in a way that will help West Virginia, move us in the right direction on the short run, not taking years and years and beating these things to death.”

He acknowledged the bill may provide items to like and dislike for educators.

“There are probably going to be some things they’re thrilled with and some things they’re not thrilled with but they can tolerate and put up with,” Roberts said.

“If there are problems in putting all of these together then we can get a few years down the road, say ‘that didn’t work’ and pull it back. So it doesn’t mean everything is on the table forever and ever. It just means let’s do some meaningful reform.”

Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso contends the educators who put the letters on legislative desks have not had enough say in shaping the bill. He said the Democratic caucus also was not consulted.

“They want a little bit of input. They want some back-and-forth conversation,” Prezioso said.

“I think they bring to the table a lot of good ideas that can be put into this piece of legislation, instead of waiting until the train runs. Let’s get together and talk about it and see what we can do.”

Prezioso, a longtime lawmaker, said the bundling of several changes in a single bill has some history at the Legislature.

“Years ago, it was pretty good practice to have an omnibus bill,” he said. “The idea is to provide certain issues that they like, that teachers will like, that the education committee will like and some that they don’t.

“So you sort of blend them together. It’s a tit-for-tat: ‘We’re gonna give you this, but we want this.’ And that’s the process that they just want to be a part of.”

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