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Future of Dept. of Education, Arts still up in the air

Future of Dept. of Education, Arts still up in the air
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CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice announced late on March 12 that he has fired Gayle Manchin, his secretary of education and the arts, for releasing a statement that was critical of a bill to eliminate her department.

Gayle Manchin released a statement calling the bill, House Bill 4006, to eliminate her department politically motivated. She asked the governor to veto the bill. In an interview, she said she learned she was fired when a reporter called her and asked for a comment.

“That’s a personnel matter, and we’re not commenting on personnel matters,” said Mike Hall, the governor’s chief of staff.

Manchin also said she would resign from her position if it would help remove “political pressure” from the Republican governor and save the Department of Education and the Arts.

Manchin is the wife of Sen. Joe Manchin, the sole Democrat representing West Virginia in Congress. The senator is up for re-election this year, with a handful of Republicans vying for his seat.

Justice said in a news release that Gayle Manchin had issued her statement in defiance of the governor’s office.

“She was told by the chief of staff to do nothing based upon my public comments this morning and that my decision to veto or sign this bill has not been made,” Justice said in the news release. “Later in the day, she decided to defy the chief of staff’s instructions and issued a press release. In her press release, she offered to resign and remove any political cloud. If there weren’t any earlier political cloud, now there surely is one. She was very critical, made it political and put me in a very, very bad position.

“She was told that we accepted her resignation, she refused and we terminated her.”

On Wednesday, Justice appointed Clayton Burch as the acting secretary of the department. Burch was the associate state superintendent, the second in command at the state’s Department of Education beneath Steve Paine.

Burch’s role could be cut short if Justice signs the bill. As of Thursday afternoon, the governor’s office had not indicated if Justice would sign or veto the bill.

Since the legislative session has ended, Justice has 15 days to make a decision on whether to sign or veto HB 4006 before it automatically becomes law, according to Jared Hunt, communications director for the House of Delegates. The 15-day timeline, which doesn’t count Sundays, would give Justice until March 28 to make a decision.

“That’s in discussion,” Hall said. “As I said — or, was said by the governor, not me — we’re looking to see if, you know, there are things about that particular proposal that are workable. We’re just looking at it.”

Manchin said neither Justice nor Hall talked to her about the implications of the bill before this week. The bill was first passed out of the House Education Committee just two days after the legislative began in January, and some lawmakers floated a similar proposal last year.

“I have not been reached out to in any way, and neither has any of the agencies. I think that’s what causes people to worry and have such great concern,” Manchin said. “Their feeling is, they are not important enough to even merit a phone call or a question about their programs.”

The Department of Education and the Arts is separate from the state’s Department of Education. The first department mainly supports cultural and arts programs around the state, while the latter runs the state’s public education system.

Manchin said she’s worried that federal funding supporting many of her former department’s programs would be in jeopardy if the state rushes to reorganize the programs under different departments.

She pointed to the Division of Rehabilitation Services, an agency she oversaw that has a more than $70 million budget. That division, which helps people with disabilities achieve their vocational goals, would be transferred to the Department of Commerce if the bill becomes law.

Steve Paine, the state superintendent, sent a letter to Senate President Mitch Carmichael last week with an assurance that federal funding for Energy Express would not be in jeopardy if lawmakers approved HB 4006. Energy Express is a summer reading and nutrition program for children living in the state’s poorest and most rural communities.

The funding for Energy Express is tied in with a larger grant that also supports hundreds of Americorps volunteers doing work around the state, according to Manchin.

Manchin said she has spoken with federal officials who told her it would take a minimum of six months to detangle her department’s federal funding and transfer it to a new department, but that a full year would be easier.

She said the governor and his staff should have been considering how the department’s elimination would affect its programs when lawmakers first considered the idea last year.

Del. Paul Espinosa, chairman of the House Education Committee, said the bill was not a personal attack on Gayle Manchin. He also said people were witnessing the “desperate attempt” of a bureaucracy to save itself.

Espinosa said the bill was based on an earlier education efficiency audit. However, the audit did not call for the entire department to be eliminated.

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