Ryan Quinn , Staff Writer
Boone County Schools’ superintendent tentatively plans to recommend the Boone school board eliminate 40 to 45 positions for next school year, but cutting that many will be difficult now that board members have rejected his proposed school closures.
That’s according to Amy Willard, executive director of the state Office of School Finance. Boone Superintendent Jeff Huffman didn’t return the Gazette-Mail’s requests for further information Friday.
“Superintendent Huffman is working closely with his central office staff and school principals on alternative staffing recommendations now that staffing reductions are unable to be obtained through the school closures and reconfigurations,” stated a document Willard provided to West Virginia Board of Education members last week.
Willard’s report notes shortfalls in Boone are continuing.
“Even assuming that the property tax collections for the remainder of [this fiscal year] come in at the same level as [last fiscal year], property tax collections are expected to be $972,710 under budget for [this fiscal year],” the report states.
The state school board is a group of governor appointees who this summer threatened to take away power from Boone’s locally elected school board members if they didn’t make drastic cuts to their employees’ pay and benefits to save money this school year.
The state Department of Education, of which Willard’s office is a part, said Boone’s original budget for this school and fiscal year could have caused schools to run out of money as early as April.
Boone’s board members, having already voted to close three elementary schools and cut nearly 80 positions for this school year, twice refused to make the state-ordered cuts before finally relenting on July 18.
About three months later, in October, the Boone school system posted public hearing notices for more school closures and transfers of students to other Boone schools.
Huffman’s plan was to shutter the Whitesville Elementary building by transferring its students to Sherman Elementary, while also shuttering the Van Elementary building by moving its students to the Van Junior/Senior High building. The Van Junior/Senior High building would itself become a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school by transferring its ninth- through 12th-graders to Scott High.
In November, Boone’s board abruptly canceled the school closure public hearings before they were held.
A couple of board members, including board President Joe Tagliente, said the November victories of President-elect Donald Trump, a Republican, and Gov.-elect Jim Justice, who have both said they would revive the struggling coal industry, factored into their decision to cancel the hearings.
“I felt like we needed to give President Trump and Jim Justice a chance to see if the economy can be helped and bring back the coal jobs,” Tagliente said in November.
There is significant evidence coal won’t rebound to previous levels, especially in Southern West Virginia, where experts say the easiest-to-get and highest-quality coal seams have been mined out.
The July cuts to the pay and benefits of the Boone public school system’s 556 employees included a $3,800 to $4,000 salary cut per full-time professional employee, a category that includes teachers and school administrators, and a $3,650 to $3,850 salary cut per full-time service employee, a category that includes custodians and bus drivers.
Wes Toney, a staff representative for West Virginia’s arm of the American Federation of Teachers school employees union, said the July cuts have led to 415 employee grievances against the school system — including grievances from members of his and other unions — plus a lawsuit that recently survived a motion to dismiss.
Kym Randolph — communications director for the West Virginia Education Association, another union whose members are among the 400-plus grievances — said the grievances argue workers were denied due process afforded to them in state statute, part of the state code. She noted workers had already agreed to their contracts and a new contract year had already begun when there were cuts to pay, benefits and, for some employees, contracted work days.
“You have a right to voice your opposition and be heard,” Randolph said. “None of that was done.”
Toney said there was a Dec. 21 order to consolidate all the grievances into one because the matters “are basically the same or substantially similar.” He said the school system and the consolidated grievance group have agreed to skip the first two official steps of the grievance process, including mediation, and proceed to the level three adjudication before an administrative law judge.
Also now consolidated, Toney said, are the two lawsuits the AFT-WV and the WVEA filed in Boone Circuit Court against the school system in August over related issues.
That month, Parkersburg-based attorney Rick Boothby, representing the school system and Huffman, asked a judge to dismiss the suits for several reasons, including the fact they hadn’t been filed against state Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano, who leads the education department, or the state school board, which employs him.
Boothby’s motions to dismiss said if not for Martirano’s orders to make the employee contract changes and the state board’s vote to take over if it refused, the Boone school system wouldn’t have made the changes.
“The matter before the Court turns almost solely on the statutory and constitutional powers of the West Virginia Superintendent of Schools and the West Virginia Board of Education, not the actions of the Defendants,” Boothby wrote.
Court filings don’t show much action in the case from August until last month, when Judge Jay M. Hoke denied the motion to dismiss the WVEA’s request for declaratory judgment against the Boone school system. In his order, the judge called WVEA’s request “nearly identical” to AFT-WV’s version.
“The primary issue in this action is whether West Virginia Code Section 18A-4-19, which permits the taking of a contractual property right without due process, and Respondent’s (the Boone school board’s) use thereof, is unconstitutional,” Hoke wrote in his order. “This is simply a constitutional question. Yet, Respondent provided no legal authority for the proposition that the State Board of the State Superintendent are automatically indispensable parties [to the lawsuit] when the constitutionality of an education statute [in state Code] is challenged.”
“Respondent acts as if the State is the significant actor, deflecting responsibility away from its own acts,” Hoke continued. “It is Respondent who voted to infringe upon the property right of Petitioners (school employees). It is Respondent’s actions that Petitioners are contesting as unconstitutional. … [T]his Court notes that on at least two occasions, Respondent did, in fact, refuse to make the cuts at issue.”
Hoke also stated the court delayed deciding on the motion to dismiss until the state Attorney General’s Office indicated it didn’t feel the need to intervene in the case. The judge concluded it’s apparent the education department doesn’t desire to intervene.
The judge wrote the Boone board, through its attorney, “advanced the rather novel proposition” that if he ruled that 18A-4-19 violates the state Constitution, the Boone school board could then “subsequently ignore such ruling and commit the same unconstitutional acts if told to do so by the State Department of Education.”
Hoke said the Boone board showed no legal authority for that proposition, nor the proposition “that a third party can lawfully induce Respondent to violate the constitutional rights of its employees.”
Further actions have yet to be scheduled in the case.
Boone’s board will meet 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Boone County Schools Operations Complex, 5367 Daniel Boone Parkway, in Foster. On the agenda are a proposed repeal of a policy regarding the public posting of job vacancies and proposed revisions to a policy regarding meetings between employees and administrators over “disciplinary matters or other issues.”
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