‘An 18-carat dog’s mess:’ Justice hears WV school woes

By David Gutman, Staff Writer

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail file photo Democratic candidate for governor Jim Justice speaks at the Marcellus and Manufacturing Development Conference Thursday, March 24.

BECKLEY — A teacher shortage, low salaries, potentially disappearing benefits, a lack of classroom resources, crumbling facilities, and too much time spent on testing.

The problems plaguing West Virginia’s school system are legion and businessman Jim Justice heard all about them Monday night at a campaign event billed as the first stop in an education listening tour.

About two dozen teachers and school personnel told Justice, who seeks the Democratic nomination for governor, about the problems they face every day in West Virginia’s public schools.

They left an impression.

“You have got an 18-carat dog’s mess, you have got a dog’s mess that you can’t get out of,” Justice told the select audience at Tamarack in Beckley. “But there’s a way to do this.”

The way to do this, as with much in Justice’s campaign, is vague but hopeful.

Justice released a “jobs vision” over the weekend, with hazy bullet points like “think big!,” “Promote our state to a much bigger, broader audience,” and “Find our niche crop.”

Justice’s prescription for the specific problems outlined by the educators was another broad, undefined concept.

Like so many issues facing state government, many of the ones facing schools come down to money.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered a 1 percent cut to public education last fall, the first such cut in decades. And the health insurance plan for public teachers faces benefit cuts in July unless more money is added to the program when the Legislature eventually passes a budget (if it does).

There’s a teacher shortage because teacher salaries are low, several teachers told Justice.

“People are not going to be interested in $31,000 a year jobs coming out of college,” Fred Farris, a Raleigh County math teacher and the treasurer of the West Virginia Education Association, told Justice.

The WVEA and the West Virginia branch of the American Federation of Teachers have both endorsed Justice and the presidents of both unions were at Justice’s event Monday night. Many of the teachers who spoke with Justice at the closed-to-the-public event were also county union leaders.

John McCormick, a Mercer County teacher, told Justice how Princeton Primary School was losing its art teacher and his building at Princeton High School had a custodian on the second floor only two days a week.

“Without those experiences we lose children,” McCormick said of art and music classes.

The school service personnel are just as important though.

“When the person who cleans the bathrooms, the person who cleans the floors,” McCormick said, “without them the school doesn’t function, period.”

Jason Crouch, a Fayette County teacher, told Justice about the five Fayette County schools that are currently in crumbling states of disrepair.

“My nieces have to go down a hallway with an orange fence in the midst of it. This is unacceptable,” Crouch said. “No one wants to come and teach in Fayette County, because, why would you?”

Justice’s solution is long on optimism and short on details. If he was governor tomorrow, he would ask the teachers to outline their ideal scenario.

“What would make it great for you?” he’d ask. “Then you tell us and then let’s figure out what that’s going to cost and let’s figure out a way to come as close to that as we possibly can.”

Greg Cruey, who teaches at Southside K-8 in War, McDowell County, told Justice that minor changes to the education system would have no effect for many of his students.

“Our biggest single problem is that 40 percent of my kids don’t live with either parent,” Cruey said.

Attendance rates, grades, tests scores: “They all come back to a single issue and that is child poverty,” Cruey said. “When our kids are concerned about if the lights are on and there’s food in the refrigerator, whether they’ll spend next week with their aunt or with their uncle, and they don’t know what life has for them, they don’t think a lot about phonics and arithmetic.”

None of the assembled educators had much fondness for the mandated standardized testing. They complained that it is part of their job evaluation, but that they’re not the ones tested — those are the students.

Angie Turkelson, a fifth grade teacher at Conner Street Elementary School in Hurricane, said she spends at least 60 hours on preparation and practice tests and assessments, even before the year-end Smarter Balanced standardized test.

“They just need a good academic foundation that we’re not able to provide because we spend so much time testing,” Turkelson said. “How do you propose that we make that happen, how do we make that shift from testing to teaching?”

Justice didn’t have an answer, but he did say he’d be in favor of moving high school kids from the current standardized test to the ACT.

A similar proposal was vetoed by Tomblin earlier this month.

The teachers, most (if not all) of whom were Justice supporters, all thanked Justice for listening to them even if he did not have immediate solutions.

While Justice met with teachers, his opponents in the Democratic primary, former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, were debating each other at West Virginia State University. Justice will also skip another debate this week in Greenbrier County. He has consistently skipped such events, saying the only one he would attend was the one last Saturday hosted by the state Democratic Party.

As with much of Justice’s agenda, where you stand on it depends largely on whether you trust him to follow through on promises that, so far, are broad sketches, not blueprints.

He again touted his record Monday night — turning around The Greenbrier, bringing an NFL training camp and the PGA tour and funding the Beckley little league, among others — as evidence that he could have similar results in state government.

For Turkelson it was a winning pitch.

“He seems real to me,” Turkelson said. “He’s done some amazing things. I think he’s resourceful and could very well bring some jobs and resources that will help some of our budget issues.”

Justice even called in the divine for rhetorical reinforcements.

“I have a real, real, real great relationship with my maker,” he said. “And I will promise you to God above, if I would be your governor tomorrow we’ll straighten this mess out somehow. We’ve got to do it.”

Reach David Gutman

at david.gutman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.