By RYAN QUINN

HD Media

CHARLESTON - West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice announced Friday that he's signed the omnibus education bill (House Bill 206), opening the state to its first charter schools alongside granting pay raises to public school workers, generally increasing public school funding, and more.

Justice announced his action on the controversial bill in a news release just after 5 p.m. Friday. He didn't have a news conference or ceremonial bill signing.

"Looking at the bill in its entirety - with all of its many, many great pieces that help our children and our teachers - there is truly so much good that will benefit teachers, students and all West Virginians," Justice said in the release. "I am really pleased with where we got to at the end of the day, and I commend the Senate and the House for working with me to come to a compromise that will result in a big win for the entire education community and all West Virginians."

His release said the bill was "designed for the betterment of children, teachers and the entire education community."

The law will allow students to attend public schools in counties they don't live in, if the receiving county's board of education approves. The school board of the county losing the student will no longer have the ability to block the transfer.

It will also raise public school workers' pay and increase school funding more generally. The raises are $2,120 for each teacher, for example.

Additionally, county school boards will be freed to pay teachers in "critically needed" or hard-to-fill subjects and geographic areas more than other teachers.

The law also removes a statewide pay-equalizing provision that keeps some counties' pay from greatly exceeding the pay in other counties. Previously, counties could only differ to a limited extent.

Teachers who primarily work as certified math teachers will be considered to have three extra years of experience on the state minimum salary schedule, which generally provides annual automatic pay bumps based on years of service.

The same will go for full-time, certified special education teachers.

Each classroom teacher and librarian will get $300 each school year for school supplies, materials or equipment, up from the current $100.

The law requires the governor to work to expand the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy, a military-like school affiliated with the West Virginia Army National Guard, to a second, unspecified location in Fayette County.

Its existing location is at the National Guard's Camp Dawson, in Preston County, and officials have said the second site under consideration is the former West Virginia University Institute of Technology campus, in Montgomery.

Justice previously criticized charter schools and bundling the school worker raises he promised a month before the November election into an omnibus bill, like the state House of Delegates and Senate each did.

In late January, Justice said he planned to veto the Senate's first version of the omnibus bill (Senate Bill 451).

That version included provisions - such as private school vouchers, denying pay for strikers and requiring school employees to annually recommit to pay union dues, once they've opted into the union - that lawmakers removed after the House killed the omnibus during the regular legislative session.

SB 451 died on the first day of this year's two-day public school workers strike.

Justice then called the special legislative session on education, which the House and Senate used to pass the new omnibus bill.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, still has the power to call for the Senate to reconvene the special session and pass more education bills. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, has the same power on the House side.

Senate Communications Director Jacque Bland said Friday evening that Carmichael "said he does not intend to close the session and we will evaluate any action that may be taken on any of the pending bills that remain."

Bland said Carmichael didn't specify which pending bills he was referencing.

The House passed several other education bills during the special session that are sitting on the Senate side. Voucher-type bills that would provide parents money to send their kids to private schools, including religious schools, are still sitting on the House side.

Carmichael led the push for the original omnibus bill.

During the regular session, the Republican-controlled House significantly amended that bill and sent it back to the also-Republican-controlled Senate.

The Senate returned some controversial provisions to the bill, including vouchers, and passed it back to the House, triggering West Virginia's second statewide public school workers strike in as many years.

After the House killed the bill in February and the regular session ended in March, Carmichael used the special session to resurrect a version of the omnibus.

Last week, the House again passed a significantly different version of the omnibus. Seven Republicans joined all the Democrats in voting against it, save for Del. Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, who was absent.

On Monday, most of the Senate Republicans joined together to pass the House version, without amending it. Republican Sens. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, and Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, joined all the Democrats in voting no.

"I thank Gov. Justice for choosing the students of West Virginia today by signing House Bill 206," Carmichael said in a news release shortly after Justice's Friday announcement.

"The Senate has been a strong advocate for comprehensive education reform from the beginning, and this bill is a positive first step," Carmichael said in the release. "I believe that West Virginia's children, teachers and families are as gifted and talented as any in the world. These changes will help provide the world-class education our students deserve, and it will give our teachers and counties the local control they want and need."

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association union, said he's disappointed.

"Disappointed in that the voices of West Virginians and educators weren't listened to, that everyone chose to listen to outside interests," Lee said. "We also pointed out that we believe that there were some technical flaws in the bill and possibly some constitutionality questions and urged him to veto it based on that."

He said he took a letter to the Governor's Office on Thursday urging a veto, but received no response.

Fred Albert, president of the state arm of the American Federation of Teachers union, noted Justice signed the bill "without any fanfare."

"No one seems to know who was with him when he signed it," Albert said.

"It has good things in it," Albert said of the bill. "But the sticking point is - it has been said over and over again - the way that charter schools throughout this country defunded public education. Why are we going down that road?

"We want what's good for our students," he said. "We want more funding for public education ... But not in this manner, not wrapped all in one package."

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