by Whitney Burdette
Daily Mail staff
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Teachers, school service personnel and state workers will see an increase in their paychecks this year.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced in his State of the State address that teachers and service personnel -- which includes bus drivers and custodians -- will see a 2 percent increase while state workers will earn $504 more in the coming year.
These increases come in a year where state officials say the budget is "austere" and after Tomblin initiated midyear budget cuts and a hiring freeze for state government employees for the current fiscal year.
"Our budget is strained," Tomblin said during his speech. "However, we must invest in our future -- sow the seeds for tomorrow -- and invest in our children and those called to public service. Therefore, I commit to funding a 2 percent pay raise for all teachers and school service personnel who invest in our children every day. I'm also asking for a modest pay increase for our state employees, who have been asked to do more with less."
"We're definitely pleased they recognize the need to move teacher salaries forward in the state of West Virginia," said Christine Campbell, president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
"I've said from the beginning that I'm happy with any amount that's going to identify the need for moving salaries forward.
We've got to get up to a competitive salary scale, but every little bit starts us in that direction. There are other things we can do in education that will help teachers in the classroom, which is resources with professional development and looking at the school aid formula and identifying collaboration time as a real need to help instruction. That's just a piece of what it's going to take to really move West Virginia forward and move our public schools forward."
Lee said he was pleased to see the governor's agenda focus on education, but the lack of competitive pay in the state keeps good teachers away.
"While I applaud him for including something for teachers in this tough fiscal year, we have to look at a multi-year program and ensure that all of our teachers can stay in West Virginia and not go to surrounding states where they can make more money," Lee said. "The opportunity is set right now. This is the first step and the first day. We have the opportunity to look at a multi-year program, a multi-year package that will ensure every child has that great quality teacher in front of them."
But Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, says giving teachers these raises without rebalancing the budget is "a mistake."
"I'm a little disappointed not so much in the 2 percent pay raise but that we're giving a significant pay raise given our financial position right now but we're not at the same thing rebalancing anything," he said. "That is a major carrot to put that out there without trying to find deficiencies in the system to pay for it over time is a mistake.
"I strongly support the need for pay raises -- that's not the issue," McCabe added. "But pay raises ought to go hand-in-hand with trying to make the system more efficient, more cost-effective. We've got to really rebalance how government is set up, recast it."
McCabe questioned how the governor's office is going to rebalance the budget when there are deficiencies. He said the governor should implement cost-savings measures to balance it out.
"That's a missed opportunity," he said.
Mike McKown, director of the West Virginia Budget Office, said teachers, service personnel and public workers have not had an across-the-board pay raise since the 2012 fiscal year. (Teachers do get incremental pay raises for each additional year they work in the state.)
Secretary of Revenue Bob Kiss noted the pay increases are "responsible and austere" and built into the budget.
In addition to the raises, Tomblin also proposed several education initiatives, including implementing an A-F grading system for the state's public schools.
"This system has been a proven success in 16 other states, and it is a rating system we can all understand," Tomblin said. "This rating system will provide a better indicator of school-wide achievement. I believe it will engage communities with their schools and encourage everyone to strive for excellence."
Lee and Campbell were on opposite sides of the fence in supporting the proposal.
"We have unique challenges in West Virginia and we already rate our schools as it is," Lee said. "I want to ensure we don't use a cookie cutter program just because it's successful in a state that doesn't face the problems we face in West Virginia. It doesn't mean it will be successful here."
But Campbell said she is open to working with the state board of education on the new system.
"We want to focus on not just what you call a system, but with what you do with that information," she said. "Are you going to support schools that are struggling? What are you going to do with an A-F system? We look forward to working with the state board of education and the Department (of Education) to really develop something that makes sense for all schools so all children can succeed."
Tomblin also called for legislation to help college students to easier transfer credits from one institution to another. He asked colleges and universities to help, noting the inability to transfer some credits hurts students and families financially.
Last year, state government provided money to initiate the Advanced Careers Program, and this year the proposed budget provides another $500,000 to the program, which helps students pursuing a technical career. Currently, five career and technical education institutions implement the career courses under the program, and Tomblin's goal is to see all 32 sites in West Virginia participate by 2016.
The governor is asking the state board of education to emphasize placing the programs in regions where manufacturing companies are locating, such as Wood County.
Brazilian company Odebrecht announced last year it is considering building an ethane cracker plant near Washington in Wood County.
Tomblin noted the shortage of workers nationwide with backgrounds in science and technology.
"Many of those workers can be educated in our career and technical schools," Tomblin said. "To make it easier for students to pursue a technical education without having to shuttle between career centers and high schools, I included funding in the budget to locate math and English teachers in our career centers. I want to minimize obstacles for our students who pursue a career-technical education."
Tomblin also is reconstituting the STEM Commission, which promotes student interest in the subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The goal is to make the most of federal funding to expand STEM education beyond the classroom.
"Our children will struggle to succeed without that solid stem -- the foundation of a good education," Tomblin said.