Education, Latest News, West Virginia Legislature

Senate Judiciary OKs House resolution regarding state Board of Education oversight; mask dispute pauses meeting

MORGANTOWN – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved on Thursday a House resolution proposing a Constitutional amendment to subject state Board of Education rule-making to legislative oversight. While the House was near-unanimous on this measure, the Senate committee was divided.

Following the vote, there was a brief dispute over one senator’s mask – a mask that has generated complaints since the session began.

The resolution is HJR 1, Education Accountability Amendment. If adopted by both houses it would go before the voters on the November 2022 general election ballot.

Originally called the Supervision of Free Schools Modification Amendment. It was explained in the House that the state BOE is currently the only state agency not subject to legislative oversight. This amendment would change that.

A Judiciary revision of the bill, committee counsel said, provided some technical cleanup and clarified how the measure would apply if it becomes law.

Department of Education General Counsel Heather Hutchens told the senators that the state board hasn’t taken an official position on the resolution but has concerns about its impact.

Answering questions, she said the current rule-making system was put in place in 1958. The thought then was that the BOE would be close to educators and be flexible to act quickly without waiting for the Legislature to be in session. Board members serve long terms, which provides a stable base for rule making. Stability is needed to promote achievement.

Hutchens said the BOE informs the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability (LOCEA) of all rules when they go out for public comment and BO staff meet with LOCEA to discus the rules.

State statute spells out the Legislature’s role in rule making and how LOCEA may offer advice on whether rules comply with state code or need improvement.

Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, said he served on LOCEA and was part of its interactions with the BOE. “It’s an extensive process.” The board often takes LOCEA recommendations.

Because of that, he said, “I find this resoluton kind of redundant.” It won’t change how things already work.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said, “We’ve seen a lot of micromanagement of our education system by this Legislature and its changing political views. That’s not how you educate people.”

Education should be guided, he said, by people who understand education. “We’re a bunch of citizen legislators.”

Education chair Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said that the Legislature oversees rule making for all the other agencies regarding almost every aspect of life. She doesn’t see why education would be any different.

As far as long-term consistency of policy, she said, in 2017 they passed legislation to require that standards and curricula be in place for four years before changes are allowed. “The folks that elect us expect us to hold our education system accountable.”

The House vote to adopt HJR 1 was 95-2 with no debate.

Judiciary approved it in a divided voice vote – it sounded close enough that committee chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, paused to see if anyone on the losing side would call for a show of hands, but no one did.

HJR 1 now heads to Senate Finance.

Mask dispute

Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, is often seen on the Senate floor and in meetings wearing a transparent mesh mask that other senators have complained about.

Following the vote on HJR 1, Romano commented on the mask, saying it’s not considered safe by the rules of the Senate, and there were senators in the room with health issues.

“I care about my fellow senators and apparently he does not,” Romano said. He requested that Karnes leave the room and participate in the meeting remotely from his office.

At that point, Trump called a recess. When the meeting resumed sometime later, Karnes was as his seat wearing a black cloth mask.

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