By Jenni Vincent, journal-news.net
MARTINSBURG - With less than a week before the new legislative session gets underway, West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee is pleased that more than two-thirds of the county boards of education have voted to support a statewide measure aimed at making state teacher salaries more competitive - regionally as well as nationally.
As of Thursday, 41 of the state's 55 counties had formally endorsed the resolution, which organizers hope will give it extra clout as legislators and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ponder budget considerations for the upcoming year.
"Actually, we anticipate we'll have some additional counties join because some are taking this matter up at their first board meeting in 2014," Lee said in a telephone interview Thursday.
Both Berkeley and Jefferson voted to support the measure; however, Morgan County has not yet taken that action, according to Lee, who said he isn't sure why that hasn't happened - or if it will.
"We are pretty much leaving this kind of local contact to our members in the individual areas and they have all been doing a great job taking our concerns to their county board members," Lee said.
"I do know that in Morgan County there is a concern about the fate of the local levy - that it was defeated last May and is going to be run again during the upcoming primary election. While that could possibly play some part there, I also think you can make a strong case that this is a time to show just how important education and teachers are," he said.
Amy Birkheimer, acting president of the Morgan County WVEA chapter, confirmed the competitive pay campaign resolution has not been formally presented at a board meeting.
Timing has been an issue because of the recent failure of the county's school levy and some continuing controversy about its being rerun a second time before voters, she said.
"I, as well as other WVEA members, have spoken to, and in favor of, the campaign, but we feel it is not an appropriate time for it to be presented," Birkheimer said in an email.
Lee said competitive pay is an important issue statewide since West Virginia teachers now rank 48th nationally, although they had previously been ranked 30th in the nation.
Lower, less competitive salaries mean it's difficult to attract - and keep - well qualified teachers, which also impacts students "when there is a mass exodus from our classrooms," he said.
In addition to talking to educators, WVEA members have been meeting with business representatives, community organizations, legislators and other state leaders since the campaign got underway last fall, Lee said.
"We know that in order to raise salaries, this is going to have to be a multi-year campaign, which is one reason we haven't just arbitrarily set a figure. We also want it to be a collaborative effort and that's why we've been including as many folks as possible in this discussion," he said.
There have also been several discussions with Tomblin and hopes are high he will mention this initiative during his State of the State address Jan. 8, Lee said.
WVEA members are also planning to visit Charleston to lobby for more competitive teacher pay during the legislative session, he said.