New W.Va. Board of Education Member Weighs in on Climate Change, Legislature-BOE Relations

Mar 23, 2016

Scott Rotruck, newly appointed member of the West Virginia Board of Education
Credit Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC

There's a new member on the state's Board of Education. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced the appointment of Keyser-native Scott Rotruck early this month. Rotruck fills a vacancy left by Wade Linger who resigned from the board, citing the current makeup of the state Legislature as his reason for leaving.

Rotruck has worked for decades in the energy sector and has spent a lot of time as an energy lobbyist in Charleston. He spoke with West Virginia Public Broadcasting about a range of topics from his educational philosophy, to climate change, to how he plans as a board member to deal with tension between the board and lawmakers.

Q: How did you find out about the appointment?

Scott Rotruck:  I was very pleased and surprised when it came. It was a Saturday when the governor called and asked me if I would stand as a candidate for the Board of Education. And I immediately said ‘yes’. I think when the governor calls and asks you to volunteer, you do it.

Q: Can you tell me a little about your general philosophy on education?

Rotruck: I grew up around a lot of folks that were in education. My parents were friends with the superintendent back in Mineral County. When I got married I married a guidance counselor--she’s retired now but still is involved in volunteering in the school system. Since I was recently appointed to the state Board of Education I’ve begun to really dig into the statute and the policies and regs to make sure I understood my charge and responsibility.

Q: There’s been quite a bit of uncomfortable discourse between the legislature and the BOE. You’ve spent a lot of time as a lobbyist in Charleston, how do you as a board member plan to deal with tension between the board and lawmakers?

Rotruck: I have spent a lot of time as a lobbyist. I think it’s a very noble profession; I take it very seriously. I have lobbied in the past for coal, oil, natural gas, and most recently, for solar - for a company called Geostellar for which I have a personal interest.

There have been reported some differences of opinion on what should be done or how things should be done. But I know just from being at the committee conference hearing that I attended where I was asked questions - I could tell the sincerity of the people asking the questions, the same as the people on the board, the same as the people in other parts of the educational system from the superintendent down - I’ve discerned good will all the way around. No one of these entities has complete, ultimate authority to get the job done.

So I think what we have to do - especially when we get a little distanced from this political fray which can be very fast and accelerated due to the 60-day term of the regular session - we need to have regular discussions.

Now there are very bright-lined prohibitions against having any kind of working together that would constitute and unnoticed meeting. So everybody is very conscious of that. Perhaps that needs to be revisited because we have so many things to deal with and so few resources and so few people, although they’re talented, we have to parcel out the work, rely upon them, and then get together to make ultimate decisions. So I think we need to have more consistent, regular conversations between these component parts I’ve enumerated.

Q: Let me ask you about testing. The state superintendent decided that the Smarter Balanced is the best test for kids in West Virginia to take, but the legislature just passed a bill saying they have to repeal that test. Do you think the legislature should be dictating a test to the state board?

Rotruck: I think testing is needed. We have to have tests that are well-aligned with the standards. And on my iPad I do have a mini-library now on issues from Common Core to testing to standards, trying to learn all I can. But I have faith that in this collective, the legislature, the education system, the board of education, the local boards - all of whom representatives who are just top-notch in their motivation to do the best they can. I think we have to have a conversation about this.

Q: You're replacing Wade Linger who stirred up some controversy last year when he objected to language outlined in science standards. His objections were pretty nuanced but it basically boiled down to a debate about how we teach students across West Virginia about climate change. You're an energy guy, so where do you fall in this debate?

Rotruck: I am an energy guy, as you said, but I’ve been in either external relations, public relations, regulatory affairs, or I’ve been an investor in the energy space. I’m not a scientist per se. So I have to add that disclaimer.

I think first and foremost, besides giving students a requisite amount of information - things that they understand and come to internalize by rote memory - I believe we need to teach them how to think. So as much as we can around these difficult issues, where we can find Nobel laureates on both sides of these types of issues, we need to empower the students in every which way, in a cascading up sort of fashion, so that they can make their own decisions. Even then I know that it is tough to know what to include and what not to include. But I’m all for trying to let people know as much as they can and for empowering them to make their own decisions.

Q: You want to add anything to that explanation as far as how you feel one way or the other? Is climate change real? Is it happening? Is it manmade? Is it not manmade?

Rotruck: There’s great work going on right now doing deep ice cores; we have so much more ability. Just like, even ten years ago when I first got involved in the oil and gas industry and we talked about what we were able to do at that time with given technology - quantum leaps. The same thing with looking back through our history and trying to make a decision on what the anthropogenic impact has been in terms of climate change.

I believe, for me, for the investor part of me, I want to know what the insurance companies are going to be thinking about going forward, especially when it comes to property that may fall under that discussion argument about sea-level rise. What kind of bets are those insurance companies going to be making? You will see people begin to direct their resources toward what they believe are going to be the results.

But if you look around it appears pretty clear that we are having changes in our climate. Look at the evidence. It would appear to me to warrant inspection.