Kanawha school board strengthens LGBT employment protections, hears calendar concerns

By Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter

The Kanawha County school board Thursday approved policy changes meant to protect prospective and current LGBT employees from discrimination and heard concerns over a proposed 2016-17 school calendar that some at the board meeting argued doesn’t provide employees enough preparation time before school starts.

The board approved adding “ancestry and sexual orientation” to the equal opportunity section of the school system’s cultural diversity and human relations policy. That section states “Kanawha County Schools shall recruit, hire, train, and promote in all job titles without regard” to a number of characteristics, including race, religion and age.

The change also adds a definition of sexual orientation: “actual or perceived heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, or gender identity or expression of an individual, with or without regard to the individual’s assigned sex at birth.”

Three board members — Jim Crawford, Robin Rector and Ryan White — voted in favor of the change, while Pete Thaw abstained. Rector said Becky Jordon, the fifth member, was out of the country.

“I’m glad our employment policy is going to be in line with 97 percent of Fortune 500 companies,” said White, who had asked the board to consider adding the LGBT protections approved both Thursday and at a previous meeting.

The revision also crosses out the phrase “any other status protected by federal, state or local law,” which was part of the list of classes protected from discrimination. Unlike for “protected classes” such as race and age, there is no overarching federal or state law banning discrimination against all individuals based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, leaving it up to local governing bodies like city councils and school boards to enact them.

“This policy is far more liberal than is the policy of the United States of America, or the state of West Virginia,” Thaw said. “And I do not believe, in my own heart, that the people of Kanawha County want to be that far away from the mainstream. This is an extremely liberal policy.”

There are LGBT protections for federal employees and contractors.

Andrew Schneider, executive director of the LGBT rights group Fairness West Virginia, said LGBT supporters have been trying to persuade state lawmakers to pass a statewide anti-discrimination bill for at least a decade. He said the Kanawha County school system and towns and cities like Charleston, Harpers Ferry, Huntington, Morgantown and Sutton have passed such protections because they can’t wait any longer for the federal or state governments to do so.

He reiterated that the legalization of same-sex marriage has actually increased the need for the protections, noting gay employees in many areas of the state can be fired for coming to work with wedding rings on their fingers or bringing their spouses to company picnics.

“The LGBT community won’t feel entirely safe and secure until there’s protections for everyone, everywhere in this state,” Schneider said.

In September, the school board unanimously passed amendments to a different section of the same cultural diversity and human relations policy that Jim Withrow, the board’s attorney, said would block discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in hiring, firing and promotion decisions.

But White suggested at the time also adding the protections regarding sexual orientation and gender identity to the equal opportunity section in order to ensure consistency with the other rules — and to make clear to potential job applicants that the school system offers such protections.

The board also held its second and final planned public hearing Thursday on the proposed calendar for normal schedule schools next school year, and Superintendent Ron Duerring said the final vote probably will be at next month’s regular meeting.

The calendar shows that teachers would start work Aug. 3 for two days of continuing training and one day for both preparing to start school and a faculty senate meeting. Students would return Aug. 8.

There’s a planned week off around Thanksgiving, and the first semester would end Dec. 16. There will be two weeks off around Christmas. The second semester would begin Jan. 3, there would be a week of spring break in April and school would let out for students May 23 and for employees May 30.

As in past years, actual school end dates and days off could be affected by make-up days due to snow or other emergencies. Next school year’s calendar closely resembles this school year’s, which is nearly identical to last school year’s. When they approved this year’s calendar, some board members expressed support for sticking with a similar calendar for the next few years.

Dinah Adkins, president of Kanawha’s chapter of the West Virginia Education Association teachers union, asked for more days of prep before the start of school, saying teachers often have prep time taken up by required, and sometimes unnecessary, meetings. She said teachers are currently coming into classes days and weeks before they’re supposed to, and aren’t covered by workers compensation during that time.

Rod Stapler, president of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association’s local branch, complained that bus drivers have to drive on supposedly off days for two year-round calendar elementary schools: Piedmont and Mary C. Snow West Side. He also said there wasn’t enough time to clean buses and do other prep work before school starts.

The prep day is currently preceded by two “continuing education” days. Renee Taylor, a retired elementary school teacher who works as a substitute, said a lot of elementary teachers start preparing for school two weeks early without pay, noting bulletin boards must be put up, furniture must be moved back after custodians clean rooms, and other work must be finished — all as parents are visiting.

“If you think in your wildest dreams that an elementary school teacher can open a classroom in those three days … and be sane on Monday morning to teach, you are sadly mistaken,” Taylor said.

Duerring said five days isn’t enough, but said state regulations bind the school system’s ability to change the calendar much beyond beginning and ending dates, noting that another official extra prep day would require another day of pay.

Reach Ryan Quinn

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