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Steve Novotney Says, "Omnibus a Bust"

Make no mistake, this writing does concern education reform in West Virginia, but the intention is not to debate charter schools or at-will employees or even education saving accounts.

Instead, this is about the reasons for the omnibus bill one year after West Virginia teachers staged a nine-day work stoppage in all of the state’s 55 counties to incite attention to low pay and a broken benefits package.

Those in Senate leadership want us to believe it’s about offering options for parents and district administrators and not about sacrificing a portion of public education to the private sector and taking another roundhouse swipe at organized labor. “Worst to first,” has been the mantra of Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-4) since the bill passed out of the chamber with a slim 18-16 majority although none of the plethora of initiatives within it addresses PEIA, or the Public Education Insurance Agency.

And why all the secrecy? Not a single interim session took place that concentrated on the state’s public education system or the issues involved with finding a permanent funding source for PEIA, and when introduced in the Senate during the second week of the regular session, not a single Democrat was aware it was coming. Not even Sen. Bill Ihlenfled (D-1st), a rookie lawmaker who pledged bipartisan cooperation and prepared for his first session with conversations with legislators from both primary parties.

“I knew nothing about it,” Ihlenfled reported via text the day after the omnibus introduction.

He wasn’t alone, either, because not a single Democrat, school administrator, teacher, mother, father, or student were involved with its development. If we are to believe Gov. Jim Justice, he didn’t either. Justice pledged a 5 percent pay raise to all public employees and $100 million to PEIA at the end of last year, and said he would veto the proposed omnibus if passed. That’s not much of a threat, however, because in West Virginia it only takes a simple majority in each chamber to override.

What will the Senate do about the changes made in the House of Delegates? In what manner will the teachers oppose the bill’s possible passage? If they decide to initiate another statewide work stoppage, will all 55 boards of education support their employees in the same way they did last year?

Those wonderments will, of course, inevitably be answered over time, but there are a couple of questions to which we may never know answers.

After barely winning his re-election bid the last time, why in the world would Sen. Carmichael risk watching his political career drown in a red wave similar to what happened to Ryan Ferns, a former member of Senate leadership who got wiped out by Ihlenfled in the 1st Senatorial District this past November?

And why was this bill placed above our state’s drug abuse epidemic, these swiss-cheese state roads, and the retention of an actual tax base on the priority list?

What is not a secret is that Jackson County’s Carmichael elected to hire a public relations firm to spin the truth concerning last’s year confrontation with teachers, public employees and members of unions from around the state. That cash, though, ultimately was wasted thanks to the “Remember in November” mentality that has spread far beyond the “Ed in Red” movement.

There are, by the way, good parts of the proposal – a 5 percent pay increase, school supply credit, the addition of more student support personnel, and safety enhancements involving prevention resource officers – and that is why the Senate president should have proposed the compilation of components separately.

Instead, shamelessly and in school-bully style, Carmichael opted for the all-or-nothing approach.