Resolution proposes state education board elections
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A resolution introduced in the state Senate on Thursday would erase a 150-year-old provision in the West Virginia Constitution and allow voters to pick members of the state Board of Education.
Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, introduced the resolution during Thursday's floor session.
He said the nine-member Board of Education is not held accountable to anyone in the state. The governor appoints members but holds no power over them once they are on the board.
"They call themselves the fourth branch of government, but they're the only branch that's not elected," he said.
Much of this year's legislative session has focused on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform bill, which seeks to change the way teachers are hired, eliminate bloated bureaucracy from the state's education system and return more control of schools to local boards of education.
Unger, who is an outspoken critic of some portions of the governor's bill, said he sees his resolution as a step toward reform.
"We've been picking on teachers for a while . . . we ought to be spreading the blame a little bit," he said.
He said school board members set nearly all the state's educational policy. To demonstrate his point, he held up a book of West Virginia education law passed by the Legislature. It was about the size of a large phonebook.
Unger then picked up a hulking three-ring binder filled with paper. He said the binder only contained four policies passed by the Board of Education.
"I would have to have 31 books in order to show you what they do. They make these decisions . . . without any accountability to anyone except the constitution."
Unger's resolution, if adopted, would place the constitutional amendment on a 2014 ballot. If voters approved the measure, the first state school board election would take place in 2016.
The nonpartisan elections would be staggered, with only three board members coming up for election at any one time, and candidates would be divided according to the state's three congressional districts.
Unger said that would prevent control of the board from becoming concentrated in one area of the state.
The resolution also would reduce board members' current nine-year terms to six years.
Governors in most states appoint at least some of the members of their boards of education.
According to the National Association of State Boards of Education, governors in 33 states appoint state board members. In 14 of those states, including West Virginia, the Legislature must approve those picks.
In Mississippi, both the legislature and the governor appoint members. In New York and South Carolina, state lawmakers appoint all the state school board members.
In Louisiana, Nevada and Ohio, voters pick some members of the board while the governor appoints the rest.
Currently, only 11 states elect members of the state boards of education. Only four of those states have nonpartisan boards: Louisiana, Utah, Nebraska and Ohio.
West Virginia University professor Bob Bastress, an authority on West Virginia's constitution, said the state's founding document has included appointed state school board members since the very beginning.
While other changes have been made - West Virginia stopped electing its state school superintendent in the 1950s - the original 1863 state constitution called for a nine-member board appointed by the chief executive.
To his knowledge, there are no historical documents explaining why the choice was made.
"I would infer, I think, that it was just a sense that the governor would be more knowledgeable in making the appointments," he said.
And while the constitution does not list specific qualifications for board members, Bastress said governors have generally picked well-educated, civic-minded individuals.
Linger said the state school board would bear little resemblance to its current incarnation if the positions were elected, not appointed.
"Many of the board members wouldn't be on the board if it required running for election, because most of them aren't interested in being politicians. We just want to do the best job we can for the students," he said.
Two of the board's current members, Lloyd Jackson and Tom Campbell, are former lawmakers, but the rest are from varied backgrounds including business people and educators.
Linger said electing board members "would make it into a body that would make its decisions based on political expediency and members' desire to be reelected. I think it would take away from the ability to think independently and make judgments about what's best for the kids."
"If you turn it into a political office, you're going to have a board made up of politicians," he said.
Unger contends the state board already is politicized, since members are appointed by the governor.
"Are you talking about an individual's politics or the people's politics?" he said. "When they overstep their bounds, they would have to offer up to the people."
Senate President Jeff Kessler referred Unger's resolution to the body's Finance and Judiciary committees.
House Constitutional Revision Committee Chairwoman Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said she finds Unger's ideas "intriguing." She said it's late in the session but she would consider the resolution if it makes it to the House.
"I would not be close-minded to that."
Fleischauer - who is married to Bastress - said she would need more information about the issue, however.