New state board members pick new president and VP; want to upend A through F

By Brad McElhinny in News
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s state school board has a new president and vice president, four new members and another still to come — plus the desire to upend the A through F school grading system the previous incarnation of the board put into place just last fall.

This all happened at an emergency meeting called because previous board president Mike Green and vice president Lloyd Jackson resigned immediately Tuesday evening, indicating their ideas don’t align with the vision of new Gov. Jim Justice.

The prior week, Justice had named three new board members all at once, filling two vacancies plus another he had created by naming board member Bill White to direct the state Office of Minority Affairs.

On Wednesday evening, Justice named new board member Dave Perry, a longtime Fayette County educator, to join his previous three appointees — Miller Hall of Raleigh County, Barbara Whitecotton of Hardy County and Chuck Hatfield of Putnam County.

Those four were part of unanimous vote this morning to name Tom Campbell, a longtime member of the board from Greenbrier County, as the new president of the board. Hatfield, who served as Putnam County superintendent of schools from 2004 to 2016, was selected vice president.

The emergency meeting was simply to introduce the new board and to select the new leaders. But in interviews afterwards, members of the new board expressed criticism of the A through F school grading system put in place last fall by their predecessors.

“There’s a great deal of interest both from people in the system as well as the governor that we move things along,” Campbell said in a brief conversation after the meeting.

“We need to provide calm to the system but also support to the system. We’re talking about a lot of children here that are affected by what we do. A to F — it’s been really hard to the people in the front line. Really hard.”

The reshaped 9-member board gives Justice an immediate majority to carry out his vision for West Virginia’s education system.

Justice is a billionaire businessman who has his teaching degree, spent a short time on the Raleigh County school board and coaches high school basketball in his spare time. He has made education one of his top priorities.

Prior to the election, the campaign platform on his website featured a section about education policy that included three bullet-point items: get the politicians out of the classroom, prepare students for a career in West Virginia and pay our teachers what they’re worth.

In his inaugural address — and with different turns of phrase — he hit on all those points while also taking aim at the new A through F grading system for schools that debuted last fall.

“We’ve got 600 classrooms in this state that can’t even field a teacher,” he said. “We’ve got to get the bureaucrats out of the way. We’ve got to worry about our kids getting an A through F versus our schools getting an A through F. We’ve got to listen to people on the ground instead of trying to administer from Charleston when we don’t have a clue what’s going on and we have proven — we have proven — we know how to be last.”

During an appearance in Bridgeport last week before the West Virginia Association of School Administrators winter conference, Justice reiterated his dislike for the A through F grading system for state schools that just made its debut last fall.
Justice in Bridgeport said he would replace the state’s Smarter Balanced standardized test, which weighs heavily in the A through F system, with the ACT. The state Board of Education is already considering moving away from Smarter Balanced, believing students have little incentive because the test doesn’t affect final grades or college readiness assessments.

“Not only would students be preparing for a test they take if they are college-bound, but they will take this much more serious than the state assessment,” Justice said at the association of school administrators. “We are testing these students so much that they are going through the motions with their heads down and not trying.”

With the new board, Justice has the backing to carry out his ideas.

Taking a hard look at how students are assessed will be among the first priorities, said Campbell, the new board president who also served on Justice’s transition team. In addition to A through F, the board will likely seek a replacement for Smarter Balanced, the achievement test that made up the bulk of how A through F was determined for schools.

“That was on our agenda anyway from the other board,” Campbell said after the meeting. “We have a 30-day comment period to go from Smarter Balanced to end-of the year assessments.”

He said the accountability methods used by the school system will soon change.

“The one we have now will not look the same way it does,” Campbell said. “I would be shocked if it’s not radically changed. There has to be accountability, but I think the way that system has been designed and implemented I’m not sure it’s even achieved accountability.

“When you have a system that is hard to implement and perceived as so unfair, I don’t think you’re really getting the results you want. Accountability should only be done to improve results, and if we trust our professionals in the classroom and the principals — not one of them has ever told me they don’t want to be held accountable, but they want to be held accountable in a fair manner that doesn’t take a lot of their time so they can teach the children.”

One of the new board members, Whitecotton, who retired as Hardy County’s superintendent in 2016 after 41 years as an educator, echoed Justice’s desire to return control to county school systems.

“I would like to see more accountability back at the county level — in other words, local control. Absolutely, emphasis on our students and our teachers and our students learning to their maximum capacities. I’d like to see us put the students first. And let our school systems do what they need to be doing.

“That doesn’t mean they’re not held accountable. I believe in strong accountability, but I believe we can have a system of accountability while still allowing our county school systems to do what they need to do in order to get our students learning at the level we know they can learn.”