By MANNIX PORTERFIELD
for the Daily Telegraph
Legislative leaders huddled in private Friday without coming to terms on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s disputed education package, then broke for the weekend to “take a deep breath” and hopefully approve it Monday in the Senate.
Three issues loom higher than all other matters in negotiations — teacher seniority, the controversial Teach For America and the 180-day school calendar.
“They’re close, but not completely there,” Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, said, after the chamber met at mid-afternoon and decided to hold SB359 over until Monday.
“Rather than trying to force something though through at the last minute, sometimes you’re better off taking a deep breath, take a look at it, read it again and get together and see where we are.”
All stakeholders met into the night Thursday and resumed Friday morning, including Tomblin, his aides, House leaders and officials of the two teacher unions, the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
“The last thing anybody wants to do is fly something out of here and find out there are some typos or other things in the bill that had not been completely resolved and make us all look like we weren’t prepared,” Kessler told reporters.
Kessler, in fact, voiced confidence the 189-page bill not only would clear his chamber but survive House of Delegates scrutiny and arrive on Tomblin’s desk by the end of next week.
“We’re still very hopeful we’re going to reach a bill that will accomplish what the governor and Legislature want to happen and the people desire, and that is to make sure that our kids get a full 180 days of instructional days, get a quality education and we eliminate some other inefficiencies in the current system. I’m comfortable we’re going to get there.”
Tomblin proposed vast reforms in public education after an audit he ordered exposed a number of flaws in the system.
In the latest talks, Kessler spoke by telephone twice during the day with House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, and said Tomblin was personally involved in some of the discussions, while assistants joined in at other times.
“He’s on top of it as well,” Kessler said of the chief executive.
“The administration isn’t hung up as I see it on the wording. It’s on principle and the resolve. That’s what we’re after, whether it’s Teach For America, or AmeriCorps, or some unknown entity that can work. The bottom line is, we can get encouraged to have the best teachers in the classroom that we can to teach our kids 180 days a year and make sure they’re there each and every day.”
Teachers have voiced strong discontent with a number of planks in the bill, such as Teach For America, insisting this opens the door for unqualified instructors in the classroom. Union leaders also maintain that seniority is being downgraded in hiring criteria and that Tomblin’s bill does little, if anything, to whittle down top-heaviness in Charleston by lessening control at the top and shifting more power to the local school level.
Kessler acknowledged there could be some tweaking in the massive bill, “but I think overall, the basic tenets in the bill in the Senate are strong,” adding that Thompson shares his wish to have meaningful legislation.
“We’re all committed to having a bill that truthfully improves the quality of education in our state and teachers feel the same way,” the Senate leader said.
“They want to be given the latitude and the flexibility to do what they do best and that’s teach.”
Kessler told reporters it is important that both the AFT and WVEA have a voice in the negotiations.
“Teachers are the ones who have to deliver the product,” he said.
“It’s important to have the benefit of their insight as to what works and what doesn’t in a classroom. I’m not a teacher. I can’t tell you. I’ve got a couple of kids of my own. I know how difficult it is sometimes to keep two of them pulling in the same direction.”
Kessler lauded school teachers, saying they are assigned tasks to perform under trying conditions.
“We understand they’ve got difficult jobs in difficult circumstances,” he said.
“We need to make sure we’re providing our kids, as we’re constitutionally required, a thorough and efficient education.”