House group created to research education audit
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A newly created legislative group will research topics addressed in a massive audit of West Virginia's education system.
The nine-member group will also serve as a resource in case other legislators have questions ahead of the upcoming legislative session.
House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, announced Thursday he had appointed the group's members. The group will delve into the audit and ask questions of state education leaders.
Commissioned by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and released in January, the audit recommended more than 50 changes that could save the state millions while increasing efficiency.
The group, consisting of five Democrats and four Republicans, will make sure other legislators understand the document and how others in the education community feel about it, Thompson said in a phone interview.
"This is more of a resource (and) fact-gathering group to provide information on the issue," Thompson said.
Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, helped Thompson pick the members. He said he's expecting the group to work with legislative staff members to distill the bulk of the information surrounding the audit into clear, concise goals that could be accomplished through legislation.
There has been little legislative action regarding those recommendations since the audit was released. In January, leaders from the House and Senate education committees said they wanted to review it thoroughly and didn't expect resulting legislation to come up in 2012.
That will change when the session starts this February, said Del. David Perry in a phone interview Thursday.
"I think that the audit will be the primary focus of all (education) legislation this session," said Perry, D-Fayette.
Perry is a member of the House education committee and will lead the work group, Thompson said. Perry is also chairman of a committee created to look at the audit and other financial issues between last legislative session and the upcoming session. He said his work on that committee would help him steer the group.
"We're at the point now where we need to start vetting the short-term and long-term issues," Perry said.
In addition to answering questions from other legislators, Perry said the group would focus on how to proceed with some of the audit's larger recommendations. He said the group is expected to come up with some sort of education reform legislation, but not necessarily soon.
Thompson said the he wants the group to wait and see what Tomblin presents before pushing legislation.
"It's his audit, so I want to see what the governor proposes," Thompson said.
Delegate Daryl Cowles of Morgan County, one of the Republicans appointed to the group, said he was hopeful Tomblin would be a "forceful leader" on education reform.
Cowles said it's important to talk with the various groups that could be affected by any changes - the state Department of Education, state Board of Education and teachers unions, for example - but he doesn't want those conversations to waylay any reform measures.
"What I don't want this work group to be is another delay on action from the Legislature," Cowles said. "We must act and we must act now."
Also appointed to the group were: Larry Williams, D-Preston; Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock; Doug Reynolds, D-Randolph; Denise Campbell, D-Randolph; Bill Anderson, R-Wood; Amanda Pasdon, D-Monongalia; and Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha.
Work groups are not common, Thompson said, but are created when there is a "major issue." He hopes the Senate will create a similar group.
Perry, Campbell and Pasdon are members of the House education committee. Campbell also served with Perry on a committee created to look at the audit and other financial measures.
The state Board of Education and representatives from teacher and service personnel unions recently presented their thoughts on the audit with that committee. It also heard a report on input from attendees at forums held during the summer.
Williams served on the committee in the past and is currently on an education committee that has met between last session and this session. Anderson, a career educator, is on the same committee.
Cowles and Reynolds are members of the finance committee. Swartzmiller and Nelson are members of the government organization committee.
Committee assignments could change during the session though, Cowles said. The November election results significantly changed the composition of the House: Republicans gained 11 seats to bring their total representation to 46 out of 100.
The change in "political climate" should help with any education reform legislation, Cowles said. He said the education committee's allegiance with teachers unions could have prevented some reform measures from coming up for a vote, something Armstead also mentioned and a common belief among House Republicans.
"I do think that we need to be willing to perhaps say no to some people that we as a legislature have not been willing to say no to," Armstead said.
Because committee composition changes to mirror the composition of the entire House, Cowles said the education committee might not be the "stumbling block" for reform that some have perceived it to be in the past.
There's no set agenda for the work group, Thompson said. Legislators had the chance to pick up copies of the audit and the board's response so they could read them at home, so he expects the group to do independent research for now.
When lawmakers return to Charleston for January meetings, Thompson plans to check with the group members to see what preparations are needed for the session.
Delegates who are not members of the group are still expected to do their own research of the audit, Thompson said.