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Kanawha senator asks for teacher absentee rates

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lots of people talk about the impact of truancy on student achievement, but one state senator requested figures Tuesday on absentee rates among teachers.

Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, asked state Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares to provide teacher absentee rates by county for the past five years.

Wells, in the Senate Education Committee meeting, noted that Kanawha County had to pay substitute teachers $4.6 million last school year, and said he believes there is a problem with high absenteeism among some teachers.

"If we see someone missing 10, 12, 14, 15 days [a year] over a five-year period, there's an issue there," Wells said. "I want to see absences from both sides."

Phares said informal data show that teachers have higher percentages of absentee rates than students in most counties, but said he wanted to see more precise data.

Statewide, percentages of students with 20 or more unexcused absences in a school year range from about 3 percent at the elementary school level to about 10 percent at the high school level, he said.

Purchase of routers questioned

Also Tuesday, members of the Senate Finance Committee grilled Administration Secretary Ross Taylor and Tomblin administration chief of staff Rob Alsop regarding the recent legislative audit that found the state had overpaid nearly $8 million by buying oversize computer network routers to be installed in schools, libraries and other public facilities around the state, as part of a federally funded broadband Internet initiative.

"It's just not conceivable to me that something of this size could get so messed up, and nobody seems to know what happened," said Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton. "It sounds like somebody who was representing us didn't know what they were doing and got sold a bill of goods."

Alsop said he has been instructed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to talk to the parties involved, find the facts, and prepare a response to the findings of the legislative audit, which was released Feb. 10.

Both Alsop and Taylor said part of the difficulty has been that the $24 million router purchase took place in 2010 under the Manchin administration, and many of individuals directly involved, including former Office of Technology director Kyle Schafer, are no longer in state government.

"When we came in, the decision had been made. We had the routers, and we've tried to work from there," Alsop said.

Then-Senate President Tomblin began acting as governor on Nov. 15, 2010, when Manchin resigned to become a U.S. senator. Tomblin was elected to the remaining year of the Manchin's unexpired term in November 2011, and re-elected to a four-year term last November.

Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, said he believes that had the federal funds been spent properly, broadband service would be available by now in the counties he represents.

"Somebody's got to be held accountable here. People in Mingo, Mercer and McDowell counties don't have broadband service," he said.

Taylor said the broadband initiative remains a work in progress.

"I think it's too early to determine if it's a success or failure," he said.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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