CHARLESTON — Teacher salaries and accountability, the opioid crisis and school funding took the forefront as top education issues facing the state during the 2018 Legislative Lookahead Friday, in Charleston.
The day-long event, hosted by the West Virginia Press Association, featured panels tackling statewide issues.
Panel members on education included Del. Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, vice chair of the Education Committee; Del. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, House Education Committee; Christine Campbell, American Federation of Teachers; and Robert Thompson, D-Wayne. John Dahlia, NCWV business editor, moderated the session.
Panel members seemed to agree teacher salaries in West Virginia need to increase in order to retain and recruit quality professionals, but had different ideas of how to tackle the issue.
“We can’t cut our way into prosperity,” Campbell said. “We can’t cut education and think we’re going to see improvements.”
Campbell noted early in the session the state is currently facing a teacher shortage.
“We have 725 vacancies,” she said, adding that the state is “whittling away at qualifications” when it comes to hiring teachers.
“What are we doing to keep teachers and service personnel in our schools?” she asked.
One problem causing the shortage, Campbell said, is competition from other states.
“States around us pay $5,000 to $20,000 more,” she said.
Statler said more than half of the state’s budget is in the education sector. He said the state should look at efficiency in order to free up funds that could be put toward increasing teacher salaries.
“Look within the budget you already have,” he said, adding that schools need more autonomy.
“Travel across the state, they will tell you where there’s cost-savings,” he said. “Here’s what you have to work with. Develop the system that’s best.”
One issue that came up during several of Friday’s sessions: Elimination of the personal property tax and the potential impact on education.
During the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers expect Gov. Jim Justice to submit a resolution for a vote on a constitutional amendment to eliminate the personal property tax, or inventory tax. This is tax on equipment and machinery as well as inventory. The proposal would eliminate about $130 million, lawmakers said.
Legislators called the tax a “job killer” that makes the state uncompetitive when it comes to attracting and retaining business. The problem, however, is counties, cities and schools would lose money if it were eliminated.
Del. Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said the current plan is to eliminate a portion of the tax over a period of seven years — about $20 million a year. This would be absorbed through government efficiencies and economic growth.
Panelists also spoke out about the opioid crisis facing the state and its impact on education, youth and the workforce.
Statler said the state needs an educated, drug-free workforce. Businesses throughout the state are expressing difficulty in finding qualified applicants that are drug free, he said.
“At the local level, we’re looking at allowing principals to have greater autonomy in running schools,” he said. “They are the ones who know these problems.”
He noted the need for counselors, which he said must have the training and resources needed to deal with the problem.
“I can’t imagine some of things they have to deal with,” he said.
Thompson, who is a Wayne County high school teacher, said schools are already fighting this. He said he has had students who have overdosed and he has had students who have lost parents.
“Some of them are my better students,” he said. “Because unfortunately they have learned by example.”
Thompson said opportunity is important. He said students who participate in extracurricular activities are less likely to do drugs.
He also said it’s important to bring in community leaders, court officials and counselors, who can explain the consequences.
Ultimately, he said, one of the most effective ways to fight it is “having top quality people in the classrooms.”
For some, he said, the only role model they have in their life is their teacher.
“That’s the biggest responsibility (teachers) have,” he said.
Accountability also dominated conversation Friday.
Statler said there is legislation “out there” that will look at accountability. He said principals, as leaders of schools, must be trained to do evaluations.
“They have to know what they’re looking for,” he said. “They have to know where they want their teachers at.”
He said a standard should be set, so that all teachers, regardless of district, are looked at with the same “objective eyes.”
Rowe said teachers are professionals who are expected to perform.
“Evaluations make sense,” he said, adding they make sense for principals too.
“I think it’s important for faculty to be able to get together and talk about what’s going on,” he said.
He also said it’s important to look at test scores and to make services available to schools that are having trouble.
Campbell said there is an evaluation system currently in place.
She said the 80 percent of the evaluation is based on performance in the classroom. She also noted that teachers are put on a probationary period for the first three years of their career.
“The evaluation system that we have, if it was utilized the way it was intended, we would see people who are learning and improving,” she said. “Everyone deserves to have due process.”
(Heath can be contacted at email@example.com)