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MU community honors legacy 75 left behind

HUNTINGTON — When Southern Airways Flight 932 crashed into a Kenova hillside 49 years ago Thursday, 75 lives were extinguished, but the legacy they left behind is still shaping Huntington today.

Listening to the 75 names read aloud Thursday as a white rose was placed on the Marshall University Memorial Fountain during the university’s annual ceremony marking the anniversary, many reflected institutions and people still affecting the Huntington community today — Prestera, Morehouse and Chambers, to name a few. It’s a reminder of how deep a wound Nov. 14, 1970, left on the community.

“We are a university rooted in community — something I believe makes us one of the most special institutions to exist,” said Anna Williams, MU student body vice president. “We are a family dedicated to supporting one another, seeing each other through highs and lows, and growing together. Our community, our family is bonded together through resilience. And because of days like today, we understand each other a little more through a common bond we all share. We hold each other a little closer than usual. We understand, either directly or indirectly, what it feels like to experience massive grief, to look upon ashes and know that your only option is to rise.”

Dr. Matthew Ralsten III had no choice but to rise after losing both his parents, Murrill and Helen Ralsten, on that fateful day. He was 5 and his sister Molly was 3. The keynote speaker for Thursday’s ceremony, Ralsten shared memories of his parents and his life after the crash.

Murrill and Helen Ralsten, West Virginia natives, met at Marshall and fell in love. Helen was a teacher in Chesapeake and Murrill ran a downtown clothing shop and at the time of the crash was a member of Huntington City Council.

“They still found time to support their alma mater and the football program,” Ralsten said. “As such, they joined fellow community members as fans and supporters traveling to East Carolina on that fateful day 49 years ago.”

Ralsten and his sister were taken in by their aunt and uncle in Vienna, West Virginia.

His parents, along with the strong family bonds of his extended family, shaped his life, he said. Ralsten eventually found his way back to Huntington, graduating from Marshall’s medical school in 2002. Like his parents, he found the love of his life at Marshall — his wife, Tammy. They have two children, twins, who also attended the ceremony.

Ralsten said it feels like yesterday that the crash happened, but the fountain ceremony gets more special each year. He agreed with Marshall President Jerome Gilbert, who said the fountain plaza turns into a sanctuary each year.

Gilbert said the yearly ritual of the ceremony largely defines the university.

“The ritual reminds us, strengthens us and binds us together in love,” Gilbert said.

The Marshall Thundering Herd takes the field Friday night against Louisiana Tech University. Athletic Director Mike Hamrick said team members, as they always do, will play for the 75.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

State school board furthers policy allowing W.Va.’s first charter schools

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Constitution gives the state Board of Education overwhelming power over education, a fact reiterated by state Supreme Court precedent over decades.

That power means state lawmakers can’t change or block the unelected board’s policies.

The state school board may even be able to legally ignore education laws that legislators tell it to enact — if Supreme Court justices rule in the future as they have in the past.

But on Thursday, the board, which previously opposed charter schools, nonetheless began complying with lawmakers’ order this summer to pass a policy allowing West Virginia’s first charter schools.

Board President Dave Perry said the board could have ignored the law, but, “I don’t think that’s in the interest of the system. I don’t think it’s the interest in the relationship that’s always existed between the Legislature and the state Board of Education, which has been cooperative in the interest of students.”

On a voice vote with no nays heard, the board placed a draft policy out for a 60-day public comment period (the online comment portal should open soon at wvde.state.wv.us/policies). After the 60 days and possible changes, the board will have to decide whether to pass the policy.

According to state Department of Education officials, the draft largely mirrors the charter school law that the Republican-controlled Legislature passed.

Board member Debra Sullivan asked Sarah Stewart, who often represents the education department before the Legislature, what percentage of the draft came from state law.

“Please don’t hold me to this,” Stewart said. “But I would venture to say 75-80% of it is directly from state law, and that might be even lowballing.”

However, the draft takes a stance on an issue where legislators remained silent in their law: whether online charter schools will be allowed.

“While the charter school may include virtual learning opportunities to its students as part of its proposed program,” the draft says, “the proposed program shall not be a full-time virtual program.”

The Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes has found that students who attended charter schools that primarily relied on online learning had significantly less academic growth than those who attended traditional public schools.

Despite education department Communications Executive Director Kristin Anderson saying the department wanted to make a draft of the policy public in October, it wasn’t published online until Wednesday.

Sullivan usually has the most specific questions and comments on policies. She said she received the draft only recently and, before voting to put it out for public comment, she “hadn’t had the opportunity to really read this.”

“And because this is an important topic for us to be dealing with, it seems to me that it would be prudent to give ample time not only for us to read and digest, but also the public,” Sullivan said.

She suggested a 60-day public comment period, twice the normal length for the board’s policies, and her fellow board members concurred.

The only of the nine board members absent Thursday were Daniel Snavely and Jim Wilson.

“This is a piece of legislation that, as we all know, was fairly controversial,” said state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine. “So, I think we have an obligation to the Legislature to get it right.”

That legislation was the omnibus education bill (House Bill 206), which, among other things, legalized up to three new charter schools in West Virginia every three years.

A more expansive version of the bill — an iteration that also would have given parents public money to home-school their kids or place them in private schools — triggered West Virginia’s second statewide public school worker strike in as many years. The bill was greatly scaled back before passage.

The state’s main education employee unions have said they plan to sue over the bill, but the suit has yet to materialize.

“Our attorneys continue to monitor everything and they will bring the suit at the appropriate time,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association union, without specifying why there’s been a delay.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

Huntington firefighters accept contract with city

HUNTINGTON — The city of Huntington and the union representing the city’s firefighters have reached a contract agreement, promising pay increases and health insurance maintained at current levels.

The three-year contract was the city’s “last contract offer,” according to a news release from the city. It was ratified by members of the International Association of Firefighters Local 289 by a vote Thursday, one day before a Nov. 15 deadline to reach an agreement was set to expire. That deadline had been extended for several months following negotiations between the two parties.

The newly ratified contract will provide 12% pay increases for firefighters over three years and will maintain health care coverage at current cost levels. It also will “provide the city with more flexibility” in managing the department, according to the release.

Mayor Steve Williams said the contract ensures the city will continue to provide “world-class fire protection to residents of Huntington.”

“We are proud of the partnerships we have developed with the unions that represent city employees,” Williams said in a statement. “We are affirming that labor and management can come together to ensure certainty and security for our employees and certainty for the services that are provided to our residents.”

Members of Huntington City Council will need to approve the ratified contract before it becomes official.

If approved, the contract will provide significantly higher pay raises than what council members anticipated earlier this year. In passing the 2019-20 fiscal year budget, which began July 1, council members had set aside at least 2% in pay increases for all union city employees.

However, the proposed pay increases are on par with similar increases given to unions representing the city’s police department and Public Works Department employees this year.

In September, council members approved a contract to give 12% pay increases over three years to the Fraternal Order of Police Gold Star Lodge 65, the city’s police union. Officers will be given a 5% raise during the first two years of the contract and a 2% raise in the third year.

In May, council members approved 12% raises for members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 598, the union representing employees of the city’s Public Works Department. In the first year of that contract, workers will receive a 5% wage rate increase across all classifications. They will receive a 4% wage increase in the second year, and then a 3% increase in the third year. This comes with 45 cents more per hour for those with a valid CDL, a quarter increase from the previous contract.

Williams said the money to provide raises to the three unions comes from cost-saving measures his administration has implemented. In September, the city announced it was finishing the fiscal year more than $2.9 million in the black. This was attributed to the city’s focus on precise budgeting, aggressive collections and detecting unreported income.

“Certainty and security for our employees has been our vision since my election in 2013,” Williams said. “We are able to offer these wage increases because of belt-tightening and other improvements we have made since 2017. We are now reaping the rewards from making hard, but necessary, decisions.”

The last time the city approved a contract with the firefighters union was in July 2017, which saw two annual 2% pay increases from previous contracts. That contract agreement came with several deadline extensions after city officials and firefighters could not agree on staffing levels. At the time, the city was recovering from an unforeseen budget shortfall earlier in the year that led to layoffs in the police and fire departments. Staffing levels have since been restored to what they were before the shortfall was discovered.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.