Sustained Outrage

Last month, the state Board of Education decided to take over the Preston County school system. This week, they returned full control to the Hampshire County school board after more than three years of state intervention.

Jack McClanahan, deputy state superintendent, explained the steps county school officials must take to regain control of a troubled school system.

Both Lincoln and McDowell counties might regain local control of schools this year.

Low test scores and poor graduation rates are often not the major reasons a county loses its local control. As with Preston County, crumbling facilities, poor financial record keeping, faulty hiring practices and leadership problems usually play a big part.

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Adam Wolf, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, represents a former middle-school student in Arizona who was subjected to a strip search in 2003. The case will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court next month, according to a story in the New York Times.

Wolf told the newspaper that school officials violated Savana Redding’s rights when they forced her to strip as they searched for prescription pills.

“When you send your child off to school every day, you expect them to be in math class or in the choir,” Wolf told the Times. “You never imagine their being forced to strip naked and expose their genitalia and breasts to their school officials.”   

Last year, Wolf appeared before the Kanawha County Board of Education in an attempt to have them reconsider a policy to randomly drug test teachers and most other school employees. He was also present in court on behalf of the plaintiffs in a late December hearing, when Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph Robert Goodwin granted a temporary injunction to delay the policy. It would have been effective in January.     


That other Kanawha schools court case

As the Kanawha County Board of Education contests a well-publicized random drug testing case in U.S. federal court, the school system still has another high-profile lawsuit on the dockets.

In October, school officials again asked a Kanawha County Circuit judge to decide who is responsible to pay an annual fee to the local library. The case is pending before Circuit Judge Irene Berger.

By July 2008, legal fees over six years in the library case had cost more than $120,000. Attorney James K. Brown has since continued work on the case.    

The Kanawha school board’s suit names the state Board of Education and State Superintendent Steve Paine as defendants, and argue that both are obligated to “administer the financing of the public schools” in West Virginia.

In recent years, Kanawha County schools have paid more than $2.5 million each year to the Kanawha County Public Library. A special act of the Legislature in 1957 mandated a portion of regular tax levy revenue be used to support the public library.

School board members first sued over the issue in 2003, saying the special act is unfair. They argued the state counted money dedicated to the library as part of the school board’s funds, qualifying Kanawha County schools for less money under the state school aid formula and effectively shortchanging its students.

A circuit judge ruled against the school board, but the Supreme Court overturned that decision in December 2006 and told lawmakers to fix the problem with the school aid formula. 

To correct the problem, lawmakers in 2007 freed up more money for all county school boards. Library officials have said they believe the Legislature solved the problem. School board members disagreed, and said that because every county received more money, an inequity remained.      

Lawyers for the state Department of Education have pored over the Kanawha school board’s newest lawsuit to see if there are any facts to dispute, Kanawha general counsel Jim Withrow has said.

In the coming weeks, he expects the state board to file a motion for summary judgment in an attempt to dismiss the case.     

State Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro has said the agency does not comment on pending court cases.   

WVU secrecy VI

Last week, we reported the ways WVU kept secret its deliberations in hiring James P. Clements as the school’s 23rd president. You’d think now that the Higher Education Policy Commission has confirmed the Board of Governors’ pick and agreed to his salary of $450,000, that WVU might be more forthcoming in details of Clements’ other compensation and perks.

However, WVU officials on Monday declined to share this public information without the delays of a formal Freedom of Information Act request.

In an e-mail, WVU spokesman Dan Kim wrote:

 “I think the best approach would be for you to submit a FOIA for the contract. That contract is not yet complete, but you should go ahead and submit your request. I think that will be the best way to get answers to your questions.”


Some West Virginia county school board members want to receive a salary that pays them half of what their county commissioners earn. Sally Cann of Harrison County told the Sunday Gazette-Mail last month it’s a matter of fairness. “It’s a 24/7 job. There’s nobody else that’s paid like that,” Cann said. “You look at our budget and you look at county commission’s. Our budget is more than the county’s. So we don’t think it’s fair.”

Debbie Phillips, a Putnam County school board member, disagreed.

“I’m very happy with what [the pay] is. I almost feel guilty sometimes taking it,” she said last month. “And I don’t know how you justify it in today’s times. I’d rather see the money go to the employees in the classroom and the central office.”

Leadership within the West Virginia School Board Association, like President Rick Snuffer, have pushed the Legislature to make changes. By law, county board members are paid $160 per meeting, up to 50 meetings. The maximum a school board member can collect in one year is $8,000.

Professor Mike Cunningham at Marshall University drafted a breakdown of county commissioners’ salary in 2008-2009 compared to school board members’ pay for meetings they attended in 2007. It was presented to members of a legislative committee in October. Howard O’Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Board Association, submitted a copy to the Gazette.

*Explanation of document: In Barbour County, for instance, the spreadsheet lists the county’s student enrollment, total board of education expenditures and revenue, the number of meetings board members attended and the total compensation ($27,200) for all five board members in 2007, not for each board member. Also, it lists board members’ pay as a percentage of annual expenditures.

Likewise, Cunningham noted commissioner salaries as a percentage of the annual budget, a single Barbour County commissioner’s salary ($25,080) and the county revenue for 2008-2009.

In a couple counties, data is incomplete.

The air our kids breathe

lisaonbrown.jpgObama administration EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson today announced a new initiative to measure levels of toxic air pollution near many schools around the country.  EPA said federal officials and partners at state agencies  “will prioritize and monitor schools for more extensive air quality analysis looking closely at schools near large industries and in urban areas.”

The EPA announcement comes after a major investigation by USA Today, in which air monitoring “showed pollution at levels that could make people sick or significantly increase their risk of cancer if they were exposed to the chemicals for long periods.”

The newspaper’s investigation found dangerous levels of air pollution at 27 schools in West Virginia, including schools in Huntington, Parkersburg, Vienna, Williamstown, and Follansbee, according to a report by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The USA Today Web site allows readers to search for their local schools and compare air quality there to at other schools around the country.

Jackson said in a statement:

I’m a mother first, and like all parents, I want to be sure my children are breathing healthy air at school. Questions have been raised about air quality around some U.S. schools, and those questions merit investigation. EPA will work quickly to make assessments and take swift action where necessary. Our job is to protect the American public where they live, work and play – and that certainly includes protecting schoolchildren where they learn.