The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 15, 2011

Educators, school officials react to inaction on OPEB

While the burden of Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) liability frightens many state employers, school systems in particular are concerned about the future of West Virginia education if the Legislature does not agree on a solution in a special session.

“It is my hope, and I think the hope of all boards of education, that the Senate and the House will come back together. This issue is so important that we cannot wait until another regular session,” said Richard Snuffer, president of the Raleigh County Board of Education.

Snuffer explained that by July, all 55 school systems will show a deficit.

At the March 8 Raleigh County board meeting, Keith Butcher, executive director of Regional Education Services Agency 1 (RESA 1), expressed his concerns regarding OPEB liability.

“With the OPEB cost for my employees, I will also be in the red this year. It is that critical,” he said.

“There is no way local school boards can shoulder this burden,” reiterated Snuffer. “More than $20 million will be added to our budget that we just don’t have.”

Snuffer added that he was hopeful that using the state’s Rainy Day Fund would be a suitable plan. He continues to hope a compromise will be reached through a special session.

Paula Fridley, chief school business official for Fayette County Schools, expressed her concern that, if changes are not made, her system will have OPEB liability that increases by $6.2 million each year.

“This year, our total budgeted OPEB is $7,598,000. If the state said you have to pay that money instead of carrying that liability, we would be broke,” she added.

Wyoming County Chief School Business Official Kim Cook explained that “even though the state department told us that a deficit due to OPEB would not be counted against the board, if we were to have to pass a bond, our reports would show that we were in a deficit, making it harder.”

She also explained that there would be greater difficulty getting additional funding or grants with a deficit.

Cook added that the post-employment benefit, allowing teachers to have insurance paid on retirement in lieu of a pay raise, was granted by the state, not individual counties.

Jim Nelson, media relations officer for Bluefield State College, stressed that the burden of OPEB is not simply an issue in West Virginia, but a national concern.

“We know that it is a huge challenge based on the magnitude of the OPEB liability statewide, and the issue needs to be approached with a measured and well-thought-out plan. We are going to have to trust that those individuals in power are going to approach it in a way that merits our trust,” said Nelson.

—E-mail: splummer@register-herald.com

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