Tuesday, August 23, 2005

WVEA Threatens Statewide Teacher Strike, Demands 15% Across-the-Board Pay Raise

This morning, members of the Ruling Party's legislative leadership awoke to find themselves pinned down by heavy fire from all directions. This past weekend, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship launched a $500,000, 2-week TV ad campaign to pressure the Ruling Party to make the special legislative session scheduled to commence September 7, special for the people of West Virginia by repealing the food tax. The West Virginia Education Association yesterday reissued its demand for a 15% across-the-board pay raise for all public school teachers and threatened a statewide teacher strike.

One thing is certain: the Ruling Party faces a train wreck in its immediate future. The people of West Virginia, who are dead last in per capita income, are demanding that the Legislature relive the onerous tax burden we face, beginning with a complete repeal of the food tax. Public school teachers, whose average salary is about $38,000 despite this state spending nearly $10,000 per student annually for public education, want a 15% raise. Most Republicans do not object to a responsible pay raise--and this includes everyone from myself to most legislators and even Mr. Blankenship, who said so in his speech to the Republican state committee last Saturday.

The major obstacle the Ruling Party faces to satisfying these seemingly incompatible demands is their lack of ingenuity and new ideas. If history is any guide, a likely pay raise package will involve an across-the-board raise based on the current pay structure, which is a statewide salary schedule based solely on seniority and the teacher's education, that will require increased spending indefinitely even though we have already increased education spending in this state 77% since 1993 while enrollment has declined by 11%.

The key to a responsible pay raise package for our teachers is to use existing education funds more efficiently. We cannot stick to the failed ways of the past and simply add yet another round of new spending to the equation. We also cannot continue basing salaries solely on the union scale of education and experience. Salaries should offer additional pay to teachers in specialties such as advanced math & science where severe teacher shortages exist and additional pay in high cost-of-living areas such as the Eastern Panhandle and Morgantown (for example, the average price of a home bought in Jefferson County now exceeds $300,000 while nice homes can usually be bought in the $100,000 range in most parts of this state). Dare I mention merit pay, which the teachers' unions seem to find particularly radioactive?

Another crucial consideration to teacher pay raises is the effect any plan would have on the state's pension liabilities. The Legislature must immediately repeal HB 2984, a seriously misguided and likely unconstitutional plan to force participants in the Teachers Defined Contribution Plan to convert to the old Teachers Retirement (defined benefit) System. The old system was closed to new participants in 1991 specifically because it had incurred a multibillion-dollar unfunded liability and a defined contribution plan offered participants more flexibility, security, and portability. We cannot afford a reversion to the TRS.

The most important part of a responsible teacher pay raise package is to use existing funds to pay for the raises. These pay raises will be recurring items in the state budget indefinitely. The WVEA's 3-year plan will have higher costs in each year beyond the first three years than in the first three because of the phased-in nature of the plan. At $9,757 per pupil per year (as of 2003), West Virginia ranks 12th in education spending per student. Yet, we rank 47th in teacher pay. The money we are spending now needs to be used more efficiently. I'm not speaking of consolidating school boards or the other seemingly easy fixes that come to mind. Whether we have 34 or 55 local boards of education means little in a state where education spending has gone from $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion in a decade when enrollment declined by 11%. Several counties in the southern part of this state are wasting millions of dollars in excessive Worker's Compensation premiums because of their tolerance of rampant fraud by some of their employees.

The Ruling Party faces a very difficult time of choosing in the next couple of weeks. An irresponsible pay raise package that simply adds new spending and possibly a new unfunded pension liability will earn the wrath of the voters. Rejecting a teacher pay raise will likely precipitate another statewide teacher strike, which will then earn the wrath of the voters. In either case, Democrats could see themselves occupying in 2007 a position they have never known in their lifetimes: the minority party in both houses of the West Virginia Legislature.

To access the state's Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports, click here.