by Randy Coleman
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHARLESTON -- Low salaries, not poor hiring practices, is the reason West Virginia faces a teacher shortage, teachers union representatives told lawmakers Tuesday.
The state has a problem "attracting and retaining professional personnel, especially in growth areas and certain subject areas," West Virginia Education Association President Tom Lange said.
The Legislature should address that shortage by raising teachers' salaries, not by giving personnel directors more flexibility in how they offer jobs, Lange and West Virginia Federation of Teachers spokesman Bob Brown told members of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability.
West Virginia is losing teachers who live in border areas and can commute to jobs in an adjoining state. The problem is the worst in the Eastern Panhandle, because neighboring Louden County, Va., pays about $15,000 a year more than Jefferson or Berkeley counties.
During two previous interim sessions, some state and county education administrators have lobbied for more flexible hiring guidelines, saying teachers often leave because existing hiring procedures are cumbersome and overprotective of teachers' seniority.
If a job applicant with the highest seniority is not hired, that applicant may request a written statement of reasons why he did not receive the job, state law says. Administrators want lawmakers to either remove that stipulation or shorten the arbitration period.
"Simply stated, if you don't hire the person with the most seniority, that person files a grievance and the process drags on," said House Education Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta, D-Hampshire. If a teacher files a grievance, it could be months before it's resolved, which leaves a teaching vacancy, he said.
Lange said hiring guidelines protect teachers and personnel directors from "political patronage" hiring.
Qualified teachers could lose jobs to less-qualified teachers if hiring practices are changed, Lange and Brown said.
Brown said the state should address the teacher shortage by making a long-term commitment to incremental teacher raises, offering incentives for teachers to relocate to areas of the state in need of teachers and using workforce development money to help teachers move.
West Virginia teachers average $34,244 per year. Once 30th nationally in average teacher salary, the state is now 40th.
Maryland teachers average $42,500, Ohio $40,600, Pennsylvania $48,500, Virginia $37,500 and Kentucky $35,500.
Senate Education Chairman Lloyd Jackson said West Virginia "can't afford to fall farther down the list" in teachers' salaries.