W.Va. teachers unions want raises

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W.Va. teachers unions want raises
By Mackenzie Mays

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Leaders of West Virginia's teachers unions are hoping that this year's State of the State address will promise something that last year's education-heavy address did not: pay raises for teachers. 

Education reform was the cornerstone of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's 2013 speech, which resulted in Senate Bill 359, a wide-ranging proposal calling for everything from increased third-grade reading proficiency to more local control for county school boards. 

Against a background of state budget cuts, teachers unions praised the governor's focus on education but said no real improvements could be made until salaries are increased.

Now, they're hoping Tomblin's 2014 address, scheduled for Wednesday night, will mean an across-the-board pay increase.

West Virginia teachers get incremental pay raises of about 1.5 percent annually but have not gotten an across-the-board raise since 2011, when they got a raise of nearly $1,500.

The average teacher in West Virginia makes about $45,000, which ranks 48th in the country, according to one teachers union, the West Virginia Education Association.

In September, the WVEA launched a statewide salary campaign for teachers, saying West Virginia is unable to recruit and retain qualified teachers because surrounding states offer more money.

The national salary average for teachers is about $55,000. Ohio teachers make about $57,000, and teachers in Virginia are paid about $49,000, according to the WVEA.

"Last year, we all agreed SB359 was only the first step. When you have teachers continuing to leave the profession, and when we estimate that more than 50 percent of our teachers are going to leave in the next five years, we have a serious problem, and we have to address that problem," said Dale Lee, WVEA president. "We're very hopeful the governor will include in his State of the State a plan to ensure that we can recruit and retain the best teachers in our classrooms."

The WVEA is pushing for a multi-year plan that doesn't target a specific dollar amount for teachers but aims to be competitive with surrounding states.

"We didn't get to be 48th in the nation overnight, and we're not going to get out of this overnight," Lee said. "Education has to be a priority. Teacher salary has to be a priority. Anything that the governor and the Legislature has made a priority, they've been able to do, and I can think of no better priority than our children." 

Christine Campbell, president of the state's branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said the incremental raises for teachers over the years haven't made a real difference because of other increasing costs, such as Public Employees Insurance Agency premiums.

"The problem is, a lot of the raises that teachers have received in the past were completely offset by increases in PEIA. So you just keep going backwards instead of forward," the union president said. "This year, there was no increase in premiums, so a pay raise this time would actually be felt."

Campbell said improving teacher compensation would improve a slew of other areas in education where West Virginia continues to lag behind.

"We're definitely looking at compensation. We went through a lot with SB359 -- a lot of changes -- and the one thing we're not addressing is the fact that people aren't going into the profession. And if they do, they're not staying in West Virginia," she said. "If we're really serious about education and educating our future workforce, we have to invest in public education. We have to be serious in investing in the system and getting quality teachers to stay in West Virginia."

Most alarming, Campbell said, is West Virginia's problem with keeping young teachers in-state. She said that's because of a lack of competitive pay and a lack of help in the classroom, such as support staff and job-embedded professional development.

"Those things cost money," Campbell said. "Compensation is only a piece of it. The priority should be how are we going to keep educators in West Virginia -- quality educators that are going to deliver effective instruction to help our kids? I don't want to be 48th anymore."

Campbell and Lee said they're happy with the progress that's been made over the past year in education in West Virginia, pointing to more professional development and local control, but each said it is only the beginning.

"As teachers, we're never satisfied," Lee said. "I think we've made progress. I think that it's going to take a few years to really show an effect, and we still have a long way to go. We want to ensure that we can touch every student that we have, and we're never going to be satisfied until we do that."

Campbell said the culture of the education environment in the state has changed over the past year and that the Department of Education, the state Board of Education, the Legislature and teachers "are communicating in a way that they haven't in the past."

"I feel like, last year . . . no one was listening," Campbell said. "I think, over the course of a year, this legislation has really pushed people to work together. I think there's a new climate that brings stakeholders together and that people are starting to recognize that you can't have effective instruction without collaboration. At least now we're acknowledging that. 

"Now that we all understand it, what are we going to do about it?"