By David Gutman
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Teachers union and education officials in West Virginia are pleased that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, is pushing for teacher pay raises -- but they say a one-time raise is insufficient, and they're wary of other proposals Tomblin made in Wednesday's State of the State address.
The governor proposed a 2 percent pay raise for all teachers and school service personnel. It would be the first across-the-board pay raise for teachers in three years.
In a speech ripe with gardening metaphors, Tomblin called the state's teachers "the backbone of everything that makes our gardens grow, more than any ray of sun or drop of rain."
The teacher pay raises, combined with a $504 raise for other state employees, would cost about $42 million next year.
Christine Campbell, West Virginia president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the pay raise "definitely a good sign in a year of a tight budget."
Under Tomblin's proposed budget, the state would tap its Rainy Day Fund to cover a budget gap for the first time ever.
State Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss said the raises are responsibly funded and affordable and have been part of the state's long-term budgeting process.
"It's not something that you literally decide on a year-to-year basis," Kiss said. "I would suggest it would be somewhat imprudent to have a six-year budgeting plan in state government that assumes you're not going to do any pay raises."
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said that this year's pay raise should be "a stepping stone to look at a multi-year program to make salaries competitive in West Virginia.
"It's just a first step," Lee said. "We can't give salary increases one year and then not give anything for the next two or three years."
Average teacher salaries in West Virginia are 48th in the country, according to the WVEA.
State Superintendent James Phares said he would like to eventually see a process develop to increase the "payment infrastructure."
"I hope that people understand the true sense of this is to invest in our teachers and our workers with children," Phares said.
Tomblin also emphasized the importance of science, technology, engineering and math education - also known as STEM classes.
"The stem is the main delivery system for any plant," Tomblin said. "We have listened to those employers who tell us that we must increase the number of STEM workers."
Campbell and Lee both welcomed the emphasis on STEM, but said they would have preferred a different acronym: STEAM, which includes an A for arts.
"Those classes actually develop students in a way that nothing else can and it's really important that we don't lose the arts when we're talking about science and technology," Campbell said.
Lee said that kids who participate in arts, music and band score higher in math and science.
Piggybacking on the garden theme, Lee said, "If you can provide the STEAM to get the moisture that those plants need, you can ensure that the plants and students will grow and thrive."
Tomblin said that STEM workers could be educated in career and technical schools and that he intends to make it easier by putting more math and English teachers in those schools, meaning students wouldn't have to shuttle back and forth for those classes.
Phares called that a "major commitment" and something that would go a long way to helping educate more STEM students.
Tomblin also proposed grading schools, not just students, on an A through F grading system, with one letter grade for each school, a system that is used in 16 other states. School officials from Florida told Tomblin and the state Board of Education about their move to an A through F model at a conference last fall.
Tomblin said the system would be a better indicator of school achievement and "a rating system we all understand."
In Florida, standardized test scores have remained steady, and in some cases improved, but schools with F grades are currently at a record high, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Both union officials said that the system of school evaluation was less important than what is done with those evaluations.
"It doesn't really matter what you call it, it matters what you do with it," Campbell said. She emphasize that evaluations need to be used to encourage successful schools and provide aid to struggling ones.
Lee said that the A-through-F model concerned him.
"We already rate our schools in West Virginia," he said. "Part of that has to include funding for struggling schools and student and parent accountability too."
While primary education is exempt from budget cuts, public colleges and universities in West Virginia would see cuts for the third straight year under Tomblin's proposed budget, although Promise scholarships and other grant programs would be excluded from cuts.
Higher education would be cut by 3.75 percent, as opposed to the 7.5 percent cuts that many other state agencies would see.
Kiss said state officials hope that the smaller cut will help colleges forestall tuition increases.
"Saying they don't have any place to go, they need additional dollars, they have the ability to raise their tuition," Kiss said. "By doing less of a cut, the pressure on them to do additional increases should be abated and that's something that also will have to be funded and monitored over the coming year."