By Lexi Browning
For The WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislation that will allow retired educators to serve as substitute teachers in districts of critical need passed the House Education Committee Wednesday.
Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, chairman of the House Education Committee and lead sponsor on House Bill 2637, which updates and renews existing code regarding reemployment of retirees in the state. The existing code currently requires tri-annual renewal based on federal mandates and is up for consideration this session.
Delegates Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, Jill Upson, R-Jefferson, Saira Blair, R-Berkeley, Marshall Wilson, R-Berkeley, Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, Roger Romine, R-Tyler, Joshua Higginbotham, R-Putnam, Jason Harshbarger, R-Ritchie, Roy Cooper, R-Summers and Michael Folk, R-Berkeley, co-sponsored the bill.
“One of the things we’ve heard from our superintendent and our K-12 education leadership is that we’re facing the challenge of having an inadequate number of educators in our schools,” Espinosa said. “We have a number of retired teachers in our state, fortunately, who are able and willing to continue serving our students.”
This year, however, Espinosa aims to add an additional benefit for retirees who accept the positions in areas of critical need.
“There are situations where our school districts have a challenge recruiting personnel in critical areas,” Espinosa said. “This legislation authorizes county boards to pay from local funds a one-time financial assistance, such as a signing bonus or moving expenses, in order to provide districts with an additional tool to incentivize candidates to take positions here in West Virginia.”
Speech pathologists and school nurses are also included in the bill’s provisions.
In speaking with newly hired educators statewide, Espinosa said two factors have driven educators to relocate or stay in West Virginia: family connections and the state’s specialty programs, specifically the at-risk initiatives.
Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, a former educator, said the financial incentives of the state’s National Board Certification program are also an attractive factor for bringing and maintaining educators.
“In some of the counties, specifically Wood County, between what the state puts in and what the county puts in, if a teacher receives their National Board Certification, which is renewable, they will receive several thousand additional dollars each year,” Anderson said.
Both agreed that for border counties specifically, maintaining teaching staff presents challenges when it comes to competitive pay.
“I serve Jefferson County, which is surrounded on three sides by Virginia, and individuals can drive literally 15 or 20 minutes to be in another school districts where salaries are considerably higher. I support trying to make our pay more competitive and I’ve been an advocate for locality pay for border counties.”
In Gov. Jim Justice’s inaugural State of the State, he vowed to increase the classroom salaries by two percent, adding he was “ashamed” he couldn’t do more.
For a new educator in West Virginia with zero years of experience, the average salary is $33,684, according to the West Virginia Department of Education. Currently there are 310 teaching positions available statewide.
In 2014, state lawmakers passed a $1,000 across-the-board salary increase for teachers. This investment, Espinosa said, came from within that year’s fiscal budget.
“It cost $39 million, but we found that in our budget without having to raise taxes,” Espinosa said. “Obviously that’s a little more challenging with the state’s budget gap, but I would certainly love to provide our educators and school service personnel with more competitive pay.”
As for tackling the budget gap, Espinosa said he and Anderson, who both serve on the House Finance Committee, hope to reveal framework for a budget “within the next week or so.”
“Within that framework is where we’ll have to make a final decision on what we can do this year for more competitive teacher pay,” Espinosa said.