Stagnant salaries, benefit cuts would be ‘perfect storm’ for teachers

By Phil Kabler, Statehouse Reporter

A combination of no salary increases and $120 million in health insurance benefits cuts would create a “perfect storm” for teachers in West Virginia, the state superintendent of schools said Monday.

“When we’re number 47 in the nation for starting teachers’ salaries, we’re way behind the starting line to compete,” Michael Martirano said following the state Department of Education’s budget presentation to the Senate Finance Committee. “If there’s no pay increase for teachers and there’s a cut to PEIA, that’s a double impact to teachers’ pocketbooks.”

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has proposed increasing employers’ share of premiums to the Public Employees Insurance Agency plan by $43.8 million — an amount that would offset the need to cut benefits by $120 million next year through severe increases in copays, deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums for insurees.

However, Tomblin’s proposal relies on passage of a bill to increase state tobacco taxes, part of which would be used to fund PEIA. That plan has not drawn strong support from legislative leaders.

Martirano reiterated to the committee that there are roughly 600 teaching positions statewide that are filled by teachers who are not fully certified — either permit, temporary or substitute teachers.

More than one third of those vacancies are in special education, where Martirano told the committee there is a national shortage of certified teachers.

“We’re all competing for the same limited pool of individuals,” he said. “We’re not able to compete at national levels, because of our salaries being lower. That is a large number for us to overcome.”

Martirano said the teacher shortages hurt the quality of education in public schools.

“The most important thing we can do is put a quality teacher in front of the children every day,” he said.

Meanwhile, Joe Panetta, the Department of Education’s chief operating officer, said the department’s proposed 2016-17 budget of $1.8 billion includes a $32 million cut in State Aid to Schools, which accounts for about $1.75 billion of the total budget.

That is a combination of the governor’s 4 percent spending reduction for the department, as well as a decline in enrollment of 2,761 students statewide that alone reduces the school aid formula by $14 million, he said.

The decline in funding will push the number of county Boards of Education on the watch list for risk of spending deficits from two to 12.

Counties with declining enrollments have to make difficult decisions about closing schools and consolidating operations, he said.

“They have to look at, what do we do to live within our means?” Panetta said.

He noted that the 2016-17 budget will include about $305 million as part of a 40-year plan to pay down the unfunded liability in the Teachers’ Retirement System. On paper, that increases per-pupil expenditures by $1,100.

“Obviously, these are funds that are not going to the classroom,” Panetta said. “These are funds appropriated to pay for past sins, when funds were not appropriated when they should have been.”

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304 348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.