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W.Va. faces teacher shortage

by Gail Marsh

STAFF WRITER

Though she officially retired June 12, former Fairmont Senior High School teacher Linda Morgan said her real retirement started on the first day of the school year.

"It's been 30 years since I've not been in school on the first day. I may go back to school later on to finish my doctorate, but for right now I'm doing what I want to do each day," she said.

Morgan is one of a growing number of state teachers who have recently met the age and years of teaching required to consider retirement. Classroom teachers can retire once they reach the age of 55 and have 30 or more years experience.

Unlike many of her peers who opt to continue to teach past their eligibility, Morgan retired as soon as she qualified for full benefits.

"Ten years ago I didn't think I would be ready to retire at this age, because I've always been in school, either teaching or learning. But I've decided I want to try something else," she said.

West Virginia, like most states around the nation, will be facing an increased number of teachers eligible for retirement in the next few years as the "baby boomers" approach age 60.

Of the state's 25,000 teachers, nearly 7,000 are currently eligible for retirement or will reach eligibility by 2005.

Obtaining qualified classroom teachers has yet to be a problem in North Central West Virginia, but border counties are already facing shortages, according to John Hough, executive assistant to the superintendent of the state Department of Education.

"Right now we're facing a situation where it's geographical, with certain areas struggling to fill the demand. But within the next few years, we expect to face a critical shortage," Hough said.

Some rural counties are also struggling to recruit or retain teachers who are certified in certain disciplines, such as physics, higher math and foreign language.

Jeff Moss, superintendent of Doddridge County Schools, said the county only had one retirement this year, and that position was filled by someone in the system, but he expects it will become harder and harder to compete for new teachers because of salaries.

"It's hard to draw teachers to rural counties when they can make much more money in the surrounding states. We have a good school system here, and we're going to have to do a better job of marketing it to let people know what we have to offer," Moss said.

Barbour County had four retirements this year, up from the usual two or three, according to John Hager, superintendent. He said he also expects to face a teacher shortage in the next few years.

"I'm hoping that a lot more students who are entering college will consider entering the teaching profession, because they'll be needed in the field in the future," Hager said.

One teacher also retired from Lewis County, and this is the first year the county had to hire an educator from the substitute teacher list, according to Gabe Devono, assistant superintendent.

"We've not had any problems so far because we have lost some enrollment, but we expect to need more teachers in the next few years," he said.

In Harrison County, 18 teachers retired this summer, up from 13 during the last school year. Some positions remained unfilled because of loss of enrollment, but most positions were filled by teacher transfers or substitute teachers, according to Dr. Carl Friebel, superintendent.

Friebel said the state has somewhat of a handicap because of its lower pay scale compared to surrounding states, but it also suffers from having to deal with a complicated hiring process.

"Other states like Ohio can come here to a job fair, do recruiting and offer a new graduate a contract on the spot.

"When we go out to recruit, we have to tell them to come in for an interview, find out what positions have not been filled by transfers, take their name to the board, and maybe then we can employ them. The process itself can be somewhat of a problem," he said.

Hough said the state Department of Education is aware of problems with salary inequities, the hiring process and the out-migration of graduates, and said the department is looking into ways to solve those problems.

With other states offering sign-on bonuses, help with moving expenses and higher salaries, Hough said the department is looking at what West Virginia must do to compete.

"We're looking at incentive programs, student loan forgiveness and tuition reimbursement for teachers who want to pursue their master's degrees, especially in the areas like the Eastern panhandle that have a higher demand," he said.

The state department is also looking to institutions of higher learning to offer programs to further train and certify teachers to fill those positions left open by future retirees.

"We're looking at distance learning or compressed (weekend) courses to help teachers who might have been laid off to obtain certification needed in a higher demand area. It's retraining like any other part of the workforce," he said.

There are a number of issues that legislators need to look into to make sure that classrooms continue to be staffed by qualified teachers, and the department is working on a package to present to the Legislature in hopes that those issues will be addressed.

"The Legislature will have to make some hard decisions so that five years from now we don't have classrooms with just warm bodies in them. We don't want that for the children of West Virginia. That's what education is all about," he said.

Staff writer Gail Marsh can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at gmarsh@exponent-telegram.com

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