Funding, salaries top concerns for Berkeley County educators

MARTINSBURG — Faced with ever-expanding student enrollment and escalating costs, Berkeley County School officials asked state legislators to keep them in mind for financial help in the upcoming session in January, presenting their case at the Board of Education meeting this week.

Attending the nearly two-hour presentation were State Sens. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, Charles Trump IV, R-Morgan, John Unger, D-Berkeley, Reps. Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley, Eric Householder, R-Berkeley and Delegates-elect John Hardy, R-Berkeley, John Bibby, R-Berkeley, who join the state Legislature in January.

Also in attendance were Jana Woofter and David Bateman with the Berkeley County Education Association, and Rick Mason and Dean Domenico with the West Virginia School Services Personnel Association.

The presentation served as prelude to the 2019 state Legislative session and re-addressed the same funding issues at the center of this year’s teachers strike.

The estimated 20,000 West Virginia public school teachers who went out on strike on Feb. 22 were awarded a new agreement on March 6 that provided a 5 percent pay raise.

BCS officials are asking legislators to build on the state’s 5 percent salary and continue to adjust the state’s Public Employee Insurance Agency fund.

Meanwhile, a West Virginia Board of Education committee on school finance and funding on Tuesday formally approved recommendations for re-allocating the state school aid funding formula to make funding more equitable to meet student needs.

Committee recommendations to be forwarded to the State Board of Education include: Increasing pay and number of positions of teachers and school service personnel, increased funding for school facilities maintenance and recruitment and retention of teachers.

Based on a package provided to legislators, Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny Arvon gave a point-by-point presentation on the school district’s financial needs heading into 2019 and beyond.

“No. 1, we asked to continue the increase in teachers’ salary,” said Arvon in a telephone interview Thursday. “And to continue to make adjustments to the PEIA fund to keep it attractive as a benefit to recruit and retain.”

To that end, Unger said the state Legislature needs to look at a multi-year teacher pay package.

“It would be for teachers and service personnel, because we’re also having challenges there as well,” Unger said.

Delegate-elect Hardy said the Legislature knows PEIA is a work-in-progress.

“We know that a lot of work still need to be done with PEIA,” said Hardy, a Berkeley County business owner. “It’s getting better and will get better. The benefits package is so important to retaining teachers.”

The district needs more money to recruit and retain teachers in the face of competition, Arvon said.

“It’s the ability to offer salaries and benefits that will not only attract, but keep educators in our county. ...The competition among the districts up here and the salaries are the issues,” Arvon said. “But our competition isn’t Kanawha County and other West Virginia counties, it’s the counties in Maryland and Virginia.”

Under the BCS current teacher salary structure, Arvon said teachers recruited and hired have a short stay there, lured away by tri-state school districts that offer higher pay scales.

“I understand the challenges of being a border county,” Hardy said. “As a legislator, the only option that I see for us to help the county is locality pay. I think the Eastern Panhandle legislators are on board with that, but that’s a union issue. They’re going to have get those people on board before we can get on board with it.”

Arvon also made a case at Monday’s meeting for added BCS funding based on the district’s student growth compared to the state’s overall declining school population.

West Virginia’s public school enrollment dropped by 4,858 students in 2017-2018, the largest drop in nearly two decades, according to W.Va. Board of Education figures.

BCS officials also pressed legislators on the rising costs and demands to provide student special education.

“We’re seeing the cost of special education increasing rapidly,” said Berkeley County BOE member Pat Murphy. “It’s the growing number of students, and the lack of funding for the state required mandates to provide the services. We’re not against helping children with special needs, it’s just the mandates and the growing costs. Some students can require three people.”

BCS officials asked legislators to create an interim committee to examine during the legislative session and over the summer to break down actual costs for educating specific student groups.

“Then they could see if the (funding) formula could be adjusted,” Murphy said. “It all comes down to dollars. As the state is improving in its economy, we can see to some areas that are being neglected.”

Arvon also asked legislators to revise West Virginia law to allow schools to hire back former — now retired — teachers.

“By rehiring our retired teachers, we would not be paying their fixed cost for insurance and retirement,” Arvon said. “We would actually be able keep those retired teachers at a lower expense.”

“What we’re saying is, let’s keep them here,” Arvon said. “Let’s have them double dip in their own state.”

A challenge facing all West Virginia public schools is the dwindling number of area college students graduating with a teaching degree.

“Colleges aren’t producing teachers any more,” Murphy said. “We are asking legislators if they can pump more money into schools just for education majors so we could have a pool of candidates for our classrooms.”