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Teachers unions protest W.Va. school board's new hire

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia Board of Education members approved a new $104,000-a-year position for the school board on Wednesday, amid protests from teachers union members who came to the meeting to demand less bureaucracy in the public school system.

After spending about an hour in private session, board members voted to hire former Department of Education staff member Donna Peduto to act as the school board's first-ever director of operations.

Peduto, who has a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's in reading from West Virginia University, has been a part-time employee of the Board of Education. She was hired in August to help board members respond to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education audit, which led to the reform bill now in the state Legislature.

Peduto was being paid $350 a day, and has made about $43,000 since August, according to the Department of Education.

During Wednesday's meeting, teachers union representatives held signs with messages like "SB359: good for bureaucracy, bad for students," "Trim the fat, not teachers' planning," and "Teachers get the shaft, superintendent Phares gets a pay raise."

Peduto's hiring "makes laughable their statements that they're going to downsize the state Board of Education, where there is all this heavy bureaucracy. You can't downsize by upsizing," said Judy Hale, president of the West Virginia Federation of Teachers. "We've talked a lot about the top-heaviness -- that was almost half of the education audit -- and yet it has been dealt with very minimally, and not at all in the governor's bill."

The sweeping education bill, which overhauls teacher hiring practices by de-emphasizing seniority and allows national teacher corps programs to operate in West Virginia, was passed by the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday and will move to the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.

The bill also calls on the Department of Education to reduce its budget for "personal services, related employee benefits and contractual expenditures related to employment" by 5 percent. The bill also would remove the $175,000 cap on the state superintendent's salary and no longer require future superintendents to hold a master's degree in education administration.

Hale called SB359 "the ugliest bill I've seen in 30 years" and said that because it allows local school boards to set the weight of hiring criteria, it would perpetuate a "friend and family plan" of hiring.

"It's our belief that [state Superintendent Jim Phares] and some of the board members have had a very heavy hand in the governor's education bill, so we want to get our message out there about what the bill really says. [This] means a superintendent can hire his brother-in-law, rather than a certified teacher," Hale said. "This takes us back 30 years. There's a lot of work left to do on this bill, and we're going to stick with it."

Seven people applied for the director of operations position. Board of Education President Wade Linger told board members they need the extra help.

"The state board has never had a support staff, other than Virginia [Harris, the board's secretary]," Linger said. Harris works on a salary of about $65,500 -- nearly $10,000 more than she made in 2007, according to state records.

"I'm a little perplexed at why anyone would question the need for the state Board of Education to have staff," Linger said. "The board is responsible for the education of 282,000 kids, 720 schools and a $2.2 billion yearly budget, and we have no staff. Seeing the kind of responsibility the board has under the state Constitution, I think it's strange the board never has had staff."

Linger said board members are "basically part-time volunteers that have other jobs."

Peduto's job duties will be to "help us with the implementation [of the audit] and the kinds of things that the board is doing now that we're stepping up and doing more," Linger said. "All this really did was create a slot that's actually under the board, and cleans up the way the position is posted. There's no difference."

Linger said he's "a little resentful" of the things said about the board by opponents of the governor's bill, and said people need to read it thoroughly and "understand what it actually says.

"There were times along the way where we heard that the bill takes away [teacher] holidays -- it never did that. They said we were taking away planning periods -- that was never part of the agenda -- but those people aren't being called liars," Linger said.

"If there's anything that's disappointed me about this process, it's that this board has been respectful of the teachers and teacher organizations throughout the entire process . . . but coming from the other side, there's name-calling and all these accusations that the administration isn't acting in good faith. For some reason, everybody except the teachers in this thing are not acting in good faith."

Phares said he stands behind the education bill and denies that he's had "a heavy hand" in it.

"We're in support of the governor's bill," he said. "We have been -- it makes sense and it's good for kids."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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