by Randy Coleman
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHARLESTON -- A bill that makes several changes to the way teaching vacancies in West Virginia are filled will help teachers and schools across the state, school officials and union representatives say.
The bill, SB227, would give a $500 payment to employees who notify their employers by Feb. 1 that they intend to resign at the end of a school year. It would also create a statewide job bank that would include all people on "reduction in forces" lists and remove the cap on the number of days retired teachers are allowed to substitute without losing benefits.
"It's a bill that addresses a lot of glaring needs. It's a good bill," said Robert Morgenstern, spokesman for the West Virginia Education Association.
Although the Legislature passed only two dozen or so bills out of about 240 introduced bills that relate directly to the public school system, lawmakers chose their actions wisely, said Department of Education spokesman John Hough.
"It seems like most of the legislative session was about gray machines. But in the time they weren't talking about gray machines, they passed some pretty good bills," Hough said.
The so-called gray machines legislation was HB102, a bill that would legalize 9,000 video poker machines and increase the maximum slot machine bet at racetracks from $2 to $5.
The bill was critical to schools, because it finances pay raises for teachers and school services personnel and funds the merit-based PROMISE Scholarship program.
"There was a bill that addresses bullying in school. That was a good bill, because many of our counties have discipline policies, and this will give them guidelines on how to deal with bullying," Hough said.
The bill, HB3023, requires each county school system to develop a policy that prohibits bullying, harassment and intimidation.
Hough said he was also pleased the lawmakers adopted a resolution that calls for a study of the annual school calendar. The study would address a concern recently raised by the state Board of Education, which said West Virginia students don't get enough time in the classroom.
State law requires counties to have 180 to 185 days of instruction between Aug. 26 and June 8.
"An intense study of how many instructional days students receive is something we certainly need," Hough said. "The state board has gone on record saying there should be 190 days of instruction."
Union officials say they also applaud the Legislature for passing a bill that taxes smokeless tobacco. And they agree with another bill that prohibits employees hired after July 1 from applying accrued annual or sick leave toward premium costs for health insurance benefits when they retire.
"We understand that the state has limited resources," Morgenstern said.
Though the Legislature passed several bills affecting what happens in classrooms, none affects that so much as the video poker legislation, Morgenstern said.
Classroom teachers were given a $1,000 raise for the fiscal year 2002. The raises begin in October.
But the bill also states that teachers' salaries will be given priority in future negotiations. And Gov. Bob Wise has assured the unions that he intends to get West Virginia's salaries up to 30th in the nation.
West Virginia's salaries are now 41st.
"I think what's positive out of the gray machine bill is that public education will get priority in the future. Specifically, we have every intention of making sure we sit down in the fall and work out a multi-year deal," Morgenstern said.
The biggest frustration of the legislative session is that the percentage of state funding for public education is dropping, he said.
"In a 10-year time frame we've gone from 57 percent of state funding to 52 percent," Morgenstern said. "People say the amount of dollars is increasing, but so is the cost of living and doing business."