Mon teacher sues the state over charter school process

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Nov. 7—MORGANTOWN — Sam Brunett broke it down into one concise sentence last week.

It's not charter schools in general — nor is it the West Virginia Academy in particular, he said.

For Brunett, an art teacher at Morgantown High and longtime education union activist, it all comes down to choice.

Or, as he said, countering himself, the choice that was taken away.

"That what this legislation does, " he said.

He's talking about House Bill 2012, legislation set to serve as the road map and owner's manual of all charter schools to come in the Mountain State.

Brunett, who has been recognized as a state Art Teacher of the Year in recent years, is a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last week in Kanawha Circuit Court that that aims to quell what it says are the "unconstitutional provisions " of the bill.

The defendants are Gov. Jim Justice, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley.

Charter schools are those alternative institutions of learning that run apart from public, state-sanctioned schools.

They aren't beholden to any benchmarks or policies formulated by a county or state board of education.

Such schools can have a free-form curriculum or year-round calendar, if that's what their leaders want — and they can exist solely online, even.

Joining Brunett in the suit is fellow teacher Robert McCloud, who is on the faculty at Riverside High in Kanawha County.

Both are fathers with children in public schools and both are members of the American Federation of Teachers union.

Brunett, in fact, is president of Mon's AFT chapter while also serving as the union's state treasurer AFT, though, isn't part of the suit.

Shoving match in a 55-county hallway The lawsuit, meanwhile, is the latest installment in a nearly two-year spate of legal wrangling on the fate of whether charter schools will have the opportunity to educate the state's students, if that's what their parents want.

Some parents locally are already saying that to the West Virginia Academy, which is registering students here for a planned opening this fall.

The academy wants to have its school in the Cheat Lake area, and would be open to students across Mon and neighboring Preston County.

The legislation, meanwhile, was originally written three years ago to hold any such school to the initial purview the local board of education in whatever county it wants to locate.

Last year, the West Virginia Academy presented a 371-page application in Mon and Preston, and both school boards denied it, saying the document fell short in seven of 10 of those benchmarks — again, state-sanctioned — for operation.

The charter board regrouped, though, and its appeal made it all the way to West Virginia Supreme Court, where it was again denied.

West Virginia Academy's board of directors weren't the only ones regrouping, however.

So did Republican lawmakers, the majority in the state, this past March.

Their tweaks included the formation of the West Virginia Professional Charter School Board—which can yes charter applications, even if the local BOE says no.

That includes local charter schools operating in structures of brick and mortar, and others operating statewide in the digital domain.

There goes any semblance of local control, Brunett said, since the charter school board is made up of Justice appointees — and the state Senate, which has to say yea or nay to their slots on the board, is currently in the GOP majority.

"We're opening a real Pandora's box here, " Brunett said.

"The original legislation, at least, gave the local BOE, made up elected members a say, " he continued.

Which, in turn, he said, meant local citizens, parents who are tax-payers, also had a voice in the process.

"Now, all the local control has been taken away."

Pass /fail ?

Or maybe not, John Treu said.

Treu, a WVU professor and dean, is president of the West Virginia Academy.

The original legislation, he contends, allowed a built-in bias against any charter school seeking approval from any local board in the state.

Brunett and McCloud's lawsuit, he predicted, will receive a failing grade — as it wants to do away with the new overseeing board.

"I do not believe the lawsuit is meritorious in the first place since a charter school is not an independent free school district, " Treu said in an email.

"Several prior lawsuits have argued that the legislature cannot establish individual schools based on this same Constitutional provision and they were all dismissed, " he continued.

"The teacher's union representatives bringing the lawsuit are trying to overturn a long line of established precedent, which is not a situation where a preliminary injunction would typically be appropriate."

Brunett, though, said Mon's school district just received the ultimate passing grade in September.

That's when an excess levy for education was again renewed at the ballot box — by an 80 % margin this time, the teacher stressed.

The measure, which is expected to generate $32 million for the district, helps fund Advanced Placement courses in high school and its foreign language offerings such as Mandarin that begin in elementary grades.

It also bankrolls technology in the classroom and learning enrichment programs in summer.

"Our citizens have already said yes to Monongalia County Schools."

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