Education top concern in District 17
HUNTINGTON -- Education is a leading issue of concern for those candidates seeking District 17's two seats in the state House of Delegates. The winners will represent areas of Cabell and Wayne counties.
The four-way race pits Democratic incumbents Dale Stephens and Doug Reynolds against Republican challengers Joyce Holland and Michael Ankrom. Stephens and Reynolds advanced to next month's election with a victory over an opponent in the spring primary, while both Republicans ran unopposed in May.
The Herald-Dispatch recently interviewed the candidates, asking each for their top priorities should they be elected. Each mentioned a need to improve the state's education system among other issues. It was the top issue for Reynolds and Holland.
Each candidate mentioned a recent audit of the state's education system. The lengthy review pointed to many areas of improvement. One concerned the need for teacher evaluations.
Ankrom and Reynolds latched onto a recommendation that reduces bureaucracy, particularly the inordinate size of the state's Department of Education. Reynolds mentioned it has too many high-income administrators, and Ankrom said that money should be streamlined into ways to directly impact students.
Reynolds also believes the Education Department has no business operating the Cedar Lakes Conference Center in Ripley, W.Va. He said the majority of teachers either have never been to Cedar Lakes or believe the facility is second rate. He proposes giving it to the state Division of Natural Resources and reallocating those education dollars for the classroom.
"Whether it is technology, pay raises for teachers, I mean I don't care what it is, it's better than spending it running a catering facility in Jackson County," he said.
The issue of teacher pay raises dovetails with another issue mentioned in the audit, teacher evaluations. Most candidates are open to better evaluations and acknowledge complexities in determining the appropriate criteria, however they disagree in whether those results should be used to setting a teacher's pay.
Stephens openly rejected any such idea, while Ankrom said has no problem with rewarding teachers who go the extra mile. Holland, a self-employed consultant, said there is no other way.
"How else can we put a bar out there to which to aspire to?" Holland said. "That's the No. 1 motivator in the world, your compensation level."
Stephens, Holland and Ankrom each mentioned a need for expanded vocational programs. Both said those programs give students not geared for college the skills they need to make a living. They vowed to legislate such expansion through funding.
Holland and Ankrom said expanded vocational offerings could help in reducing the state's dropout rate, a problem Holland also believes could be solved by raising the dropout age and instituting a cooling-off period. She would favor legislation to mandate a 7- to 10-day period of counseling and research into the reasons for a student's desire to drop out before such a decision is allowed.
"It is easy to go in and drop out," Holland said.
Reynolds views more efficient transportation as another avenue for savings, creating more money that could be reallocated to the classroom. He said school systems should lean upon GPS technology and other initiatives used by the shipping industry to design better routes to reduce gasoline costs.
Reynolds also vowed to push for greater clarity in grading a school's performance. He said more transparent bookmarks should be available to parents to see where each school, and perhaps each grade-level at a school, ranks in regards to performance.
TAXES/ECONOMY: Ankrom listed economic development as his top priority. The issue also was mentioned by Holland and Reynolds.
Ankrom, owner of real estate company Ankrom Properties, said the state needs structural change to its tax policy and legal environment. He favors quick removal of the state's business franchise and inventory taxes. He said cuts in wasteful spending and eliminating duplication of services would cover any void left by the missing tax revenue.
Holland also mentioned removal of the inventory tax. Reynolds called for a continued phase out, not an immediate elimination, of the business franchise tax.
Ankrom also called for judicial reform, particularly the creation of an intermediate court of appeals. He said such a court would provide business with an automatic right of appeal. He acknowledged the state Supreme Court has made some changes and said he would be open to giving those programs a year to see the results.
"One of these two things must happen," he said. "If this doesn't work, what the Supreme Court has come up with, then yes we've got to add the intermediate court of appeals. That is an absolute must."
Reynolds focused on developing a qualified work force. He said tax credits given for training workers in the building and construction industries should be expanded to other fields of employment.
Holland mentioned overregulation of the coal industry. As a state lawmaker, she vowed to work with others to draft persuasive legislation to fight steps taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
RECYCLING: Stephens' top priority is recycling. His desire is born out of a disdain for litter and debris along the roadways.
He wants to propose legislation that would add a tax/deposit to each bottle, milk jug and pop can purchased in the state. The deposit, or tax, would not be designed to produce new revenue. Instead, those who return the empty bottle, milk jug or pop can to a recycling drop-off location would receive the deposit back in full. He estimates a unit price at 5 cents.
CITY DEBTS: Ankrom included municipal debts among his priorities. He said state lawmakers must develop ways to help ease the impact of escalating pensions on city budgets.
Ankrom favors the idea of Home Rule to address that issue; however he opposed Home Rule's initial design as it selected only five cities to participate in what became pilot program aimed at allowing each to develop new strategies for various issues.
Huntington used Home Rule to pass an occupation tax aimed at helping manage its debt. That idea ultimately stalled in court as the pilot program itself sunsets next year.
Ankrom is open to extending the Home Rule initiative with the condition that it's expanded to all cities. While he personally opposes Huntington's attempted tax, Ankrom said he would be open to allowing cities to try new tax models as each municipality should have local control to balance its budget.
CHILD ABUSE: Reynolds supports increased funding to help West Virginia State Police and the state Department of Health and Human Resources fight crimes against children. That money would be allocated to better training and increased manpower.
Reynolds said both agencies need assistance in weeding through numerous calls of abuse and neglect. He worries some legitimate cases may fall through the cracks due to heavy caseloads, which at times involve numerous illegitimate complaints.
"The problem is you don't know what's a good referral or a bad referral until you get involved," he said.
DHHR officials recently cited an increase in anti-truancy efforts for adding to agency caseloads. Reynolds said he is unsure if DHHR officials are best position to handle such matters, insisting his constituents are, "much more concerned with these types of issues, much smaller children abused and neglected, than they are kids not showing up for school."
PRISONS/DRUG TREATMENT: Stephens, Reynolds and Holland each mentioned additional funding for drug treatment and counseling as a way to manage the state's overcrowded jails and prisons.