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Statehouse Beat: Not your average speech

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Having listened to many State of the State addresses, regardless of who may be governor, they all follow roughly the same template.

The first third of the speech (particularly for incumbents) is a recitation of the accomplishments of the past year, no matter how humble they may be. Then comes a laundry list of bills to be introduced for the coming session, and a closing exaltation of the state and its people, with God blesses for all.

(Sometimes, governors will liven things up by planting celebrities in the audience, and Gaston Caperton once used a handgun as a prop, to unintentionally humorous results.)

Which made Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's State of the State address notable in that nearly half the speech was devoted to a single issue, public education reform.

Tomblin laid out a strong case for change, citing reports and figures showing the state at or near the bottom in all variety of measures of student achievement.

(He didn't cite figures that came out during interims and in the first days of the session, including that 7 of 10 high school graduates enrolling in community colleges have to take remedial classes to bone up on what they were supposed to have learned in high school. Community and technical colleges Chancellor Jim Skidmore called remedial courses the "quicksand of higher education," since most students who have to enroll in those classes never go on to graduate.

And the numbers aren't much better for four-year colleges: With the exception of Shepherd and West Virginia universities, anywhere from one-fourth to one-third of all incoming freshmen at state colleges require remedial courses.)

Being the pragmatic politician he is, Tomblin's reform agenda apparently avoids some of the minefields that doomed Joe Manchin's education reform efforts, such as proposing pilot projects for charter schools, annual teacher evaluations, or pay differentials for math or science teachers.

Whether Tomblin's education agenda is too timid remains to be seen.

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So how did the heads of the state's teachers' unions respond after getting what amounted to a poor job performance evaluation in the State of the State address? Remarkably, they asked for pay raises ...

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While the fate of Tomblin's education agenda may not be known for another 50-some days, it appears that the state Board of Education will be taking steps to scale back something that has been a topic of discussion in this column repeatedly: high-cost professional education seminars for teachers and principals at three of the state's more upscale hotels, the Marriott and Embassy Suites in Charleston and the Waterfront Place Hotel in Morgantown.

Over the years, the $100 per night rooms, $45 dinners, $25 lunches, $2,500 a day meeting room rentals, and $2,500 a day charges for coffee break service has cost taxpayers a total of more than $18 million.

Department of Education payments to the Marriott and Waterfront each total $6.13 million, while it has paid Embassy Suites $6.88 million.

Last week, Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares told legislators that as part of the shift of authority away from the state board's central office, professional development training will be regionalized though the eight Regional Education Service Agencies around the state.

"Instead of bringing teachers to Charleston, we're taking professional development to them," he said.

While roughly $3 million a year in savings is a drop in the bucket in a $2 billion public education budget, it does send the right message to taxpayers.

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How's this for ironic? On the same day that Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox commiserated to the House and Senate Transportation Committees about how high-mileage vehicles are devastating the state Road Fund's gas tax collections, Tomblin presented state teacher of the year Michael Funkhouser with the keys to a Toyota Prius.

Toyota touts the hybrid as getting 51 miles per gallon on the highway.

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On the first day of the session, legislators introduced a whopping 672 bills.

Most self-serving bill: HB2219 by Delegates Staggers, Ellington and Fleishchauer. The bill would allow legislators who have no other source of income to be defined as state employees for purposes of obtaining PEIA health insurance.

An employee PEIA premium for family coverage at that income level would run about $1,968 a year.

Currently, legislators can obtain PEIA coverage, but they have to pay both the employee share (20 percent) and employer's share (80 percent) of premiums.

That runs about $17,712 a year. (Former Sen. Shirley Love, D-Fayette, had PEIA coverage when he was in the Legislature, and he would frequently complain that not only did PEIA premiums eat up all of his Senate salary, but that he frequently had to write a check to PEIA to settle up.)

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Observation: There's no good that could possibly come from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition being delivered locally on Valentine's Day.

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Finally, how's this for diversity? For the 81st Legislature, the state Senate has one female member (Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants) and no minorities.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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