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The Unelected Vs. the Elected

In this day and age, we’re often forced to pick between two opinions, but I believe some issues are nuanced and can result in having two seemingly opposing opinions in one’s head.

For example, one can believe in the ample scientific evidence showing schools are safe places for students where spread of the coronavirus is relatively low. But one can also believe county school systems should have local control over in-person instruction decisions.

I covered the emergency meeting of the West Virginia Board of Education last Wednesday and was taken aback by the pure hostility by some members of the state board at the actions of a handful of county boards of education to remain in remote learning or continue following the previous reopening metrics.

Keep in mind, the state Board of Education is not elected. They are appointed by governors and serve for specific term lengths. Clayton Burch, the state superintendent of schools, also is unelected. The state board hires the state superintendent.

Heck, the unelected superintendent of schools sits on the Board of Public Works along with the elected governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state auditor, state treasurer and agriculture commissioner. He is the only non-elected member of that body.

In fact, the only elected people involved with in-person instruction decisions in schools are the members of county boards of education. But having heard the debate Wednesday during the state board meeting, you’d think that these elected county board members were renegade employees of the Department of Education.

Burch said he had three county superintendents in Gilmer, Marion and Taylor counties seeking assistance from the state board because a majority of their county boards of education had voted on in-person instruction plans that were contrary to the directive by the state board on Jan. 13.

That directive required all Pre-K, elementary and middle schools to reopen for in-person learning regardless of the color on the Department of Health and Human Resources County Alert System map. Instead of remote learning, those counties could do a blended-hybrid model that allows for at least two days of in-person instruction until their teachers are fully vaccinated. High schools could also reopen, but only as long as their county was not red, which would then allow for remote learning.

I suspect the three counties will hold their own emergency board meetings to come in line with the state board’s directive before Tuesday when the state board could take punitive actions. But at some point, public policy makers should ask what the point of a local elected board of education is if they truly have no local control.

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It will be interesting to watch the Democratic caucus in the House of Delegates when the legislative session resumes on Feb. 10. There are differences of opinion on the Republican side of the House, but when you have a majority you can work these differences out or even push things through regardless.

But when you have a minority of 23, it’s harder to deal with those differences and even harder to keep them behind closed doors. Take the growing animosity between Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, and House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha.

Skaff was able to secure the caucus votes needed in December to become the new minority leader, succeeding former Harrison County Delegate Tim Miley. Bates, who led the House Democratic Caucus’ efforts to get more Democrats elected to the House, also wanted to become the new minority leader, but he didn’t have the support.

As I said before, I don’t think anyone could have fought the Republican wave in 2020, but some believe Bates focused too much on getting progressive candidates on the ballot. I can tell you right now that backfired. Just ask the dozens of candidates who ran for the House under the WV Can’t Wait banner.

Not only did Bates not get selected as minority leader, but he lost his post as the top Democrat on the powerful House Finance Committee. He was replaced by Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, who previously chaired that committee when Democrats held the House majority.

In fact, Skaff also replaced Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, as the minority chair of the House Judiciary Committee with Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell. In fact, many of the minority committee chairs are now led by fairly moderate Democrats. Skaff is a smart politico who can see the future in the tea leaves; if Democrats want to start regaining seats in the Legislature, it’s not going to be with progressive candidates.

But with such a small caucus, the remaining progressives in the caucus, including Bates, will make their feelings known. Bates did exactly that by voting against Skaff during the public vote for House speaker nearly two weeks ago. I’m even told Bates is considering a party switch to independent.

Unless the two sides of the Democratic caucus can mend fences, I suspect we’ll see other public episodes erupt as the session continues.

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