CHARLESTON — At a session that Administration Secretary Allan McVey described as “the slowest session I think I’ve ever seen,” debate over a proposed change to school calendars highlighted the third full week of the 60-day regular session of the Legislature.
A proposal to push back the start of the public school year until after Labor Day dominated House of Delegates floor sessions for two days before being defeated on a passage vote by a 47-50 margin (HB2433).
Proponents of the measure argued that, under legislation giving county school boards flexibility in setting school calendars, the start of the school year has been creeping up earlier and earlier into August. Currently 53 of the 55 county school systems start school in August.
Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood, lead sponsor of the bill, argued that many county school boards had “abused” the flexibility given them in the 2013 law, pushing the start of the school year earlier and earlier, to the detriment of teachers’ ability to complete continuing education courses or work summer jobs to supplement their incomes.
He also argued it makes it harder to teens to have summer jobs, or to give families flexibility in determining when to take vacations.
“It would reduce the need for families to take vacations after the start of the school year, and thus would reduce absenteeism,” he said.
“I haven’t talked to a parent who doesn’t want this bill passed,” Kelly added.
Delegate Jeff Campbell, D-Greenbrier, pointed out that the early start of the school year also means that many students are in school during the State Fair of West Virginia, depriving them of the ability to attend the fair, or participate in fund-raising booths.
However, critics of the bill raised a number of objections to the change, including citing concerns from the National Rifle Association that starting school after Labor Day could force school systems to shorten weeklong Thanksgiving vacations. That would mean schools would be open at the start of deer hunting season in the state.
“Most West Virginia public schools close for the opening week of deer hunting season for the benefit of students, staff, and their families to enjoy their hunting heritage,” the NRA stated in a letter that Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, had distributed to delegates on the House floor.
Because state law requires the school calendars to include at least 180 instructional days, the bill’s proposed late start, coupled with a final day of school no later than June 7, would have given school systems few options but to shorten Thanksgiving and Spring Break weeks.
“I think we’re going in the wrong direction, folks,” said House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer. “We’ve done a U-turn on our efforts to give school boards flexibility.”
Also at the Capitol as the session moves toward its midway point on February 6:
— The House passed 87-10 and sent to the Senate a bill intended to reduce overcrowding in state Regional Jails by requiring magistrates to release persons charged with non-violent misdemeanor crimes on personal recognizance bonds (HB2419).
Proponents of the bill argue that it would free up space in jails currently filled by individuals charged with nonviolent misdemeanors who are jailed because they are unable to post cash bond.
“It’s a good bill,” Shott said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
— House Judiciary Committee members originated a bill to repeal a 2019 law that decriminalized driving under the influence on private roads and property – a law that would cost West Virginia $58 million a year in federal highways funds if it stays on the books.
Passed in response to a 2016 state Supreme Court ruling that held that drunk driving laws are applicable “anywhere in the state,” including on private roads or property, the law limits DUI charges to drivers on state-maintained roads, creating what Shott called, “the right to act stupid on your own property.”
However, Division of Motor Vehicles deputy commissioner Adam Holley told legislators the state has been notified that the law is at odds with the federal Highways Administration’s zero tolerance policy for DUI enforcement. If the law is not repealed, the state will be penalized with a 14 percent annual reduction in federal highways funds, or $58 million a year, he said.
Judiciary Committee members advanced the bill to the full House on a voice vote, but support for it was not unanimous.
“We just learned the price-tag of federalism is $58 million, plain and simple,” complained Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh. “We all got together and passed a good law, and now the federal government is holding money over our heads.”
This column shared by the West Virginia Press Association to its member newspapers.