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Statehouse beat: Education reform may take shape

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If there was any doubt about Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin pursuing significant public education reform during the upcoming regular session -- which we should hear a good bit about in his inaugural address Monday -- House Speaker Rick Thompson's reference to public education being "on the brink of an overhaul" should have removed all doubt.

In recent years, state teachers' unions had a safe haven in the House Education Committee, which bottled up many reform measures.

However, changes in the composition of House membership, and Thompson's less-than-stable control of the House (sources indicate those who were looking to oust Thompson as speaker topped out at 49 floor votes, or two short of the needed 51), circumstances are different this year.

Thompson is smart, and a savvy politician, and probably learned well in the 2011 fight over Tomblin's bill to phase out the sales tax on food that it is far preferable to work with Tomblin on legislation than against him.

The West Virginia Education Association, meanwhile, didn't help its case with a report opposing most of the recommendations in the state education audit, including merit pay and promotions for teachers, teacher evaluations incorporating student achievement, and adding instructional days to the school calendar.

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Unlike most health-care plans, which run on a January-to-December calendar year, PEIA operates on a July-June fiscal year, which, among other things, makes it easier for agencies to budget for increases in employer premiums.

However, as some retired public employees discovered recently, that can also lead to glitches.

More than 1,000 retirees enrolled in Humana's Medicare Advantage plan inadvertently got policy cancellation notices at the end of the month, effective Jan. 1.

A smaller number of retirees found that, when they went to get prescriptions filled this month, they were being charged co-pays, even though they had already reached the out-of-pocket maximums for the year -- as if the plan year had started over Jan. 1.

Administration spokeswoman Diane Holley-Brown said PEIA has contacted all retirees who inadvertently received the cancellation notices, and said the billing glitches were being resolved.

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Having ridden the Cardinal six times in the past four months, I decided to take up Chuck Riecks' invitation to attend last week's meeting of Friends of the Cardinal group.

While topics of discussion included issues such as whether the new State Rail Plan will advocate for daily service for the train (likely), one issue raised was the continued deterioration of a section of the Charleston station platform.

Besides presenting a safety issue, and requiring trains to board passengers some distance away from the station's waiting room, attendees noted it doesn't offer much of a first impression of Charleston for passengers arriving here.

Technically, the platform belongs to CSX (which has long shown disdain for passenger rail service), but the damage is being caused by water runoff from the city-maintained Ferry Street bridge above.

As attendees noted, if there were similar damage to sidewalks at Yeager Airport (or if a portion of a jet bridge had to be blocked off with safety cones), you could be certain that Danny Jones and/or Kent Carper would be at the airport immediately personally overseeing repairs.

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With former colleague Scott Finn's hiring as executive director of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, I thought of the Casey Stengel quote about how the key to being a good manager was to keep the players that hate you away from the players who are undecided.

Not that Scott will have personnel issues -- he's got a good team in place, and has worked with most of them in his previous stint as WVPB news director.

The issue will be keeping the viewers/listeners who want the status quo (i.e., "Lawrence Welk" on TV Saturday evenings and classical music throughout the day on radio) away from those who want innovative programming, while dealing with the problems of audience fragmentation and fiscal issues that all media -- public broadcasting in particular -- are facing these days.

It is worth noting that Finn, who came to West Virginia with no definitive ties to the state and had the opportunity to live anywhere he chose (including Tampa), actively pursued the opportunity to "come home" to West Virginia.

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Finally, speaking of broadcasting, John Raese, who once infamously told a Gazette scribe, "I buy and sell reporters like you every day," is evidently doing just that.

Among the employees let go in a shake-up at Raese's West Virginia Radio Corp. empire was Rick Johnson, after 40-plus years of loyal service at WCHS radio.

Johnson had co-hosted the only news-talk show in Charleston, and did yeoman's service this summer anchoring endless hours of the station's derecho recovery programming. (Co-host Mike Agnello technically will continue "58 Live" -- but in the radio time-slot Siberia of 7 to 10 p.m., and subject to preemption all spring, summer and part of the fall by Reds baseball.)

Folks who know more about the broadcasting industry than I say the personnel cuts and programming changes are stemming from Raese's imminent loss of the lucrative contract to produce West Virginia University football and basketball game broadcasts.Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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