By Tina Alvey
A meeting between Greenbrier County educators and their legislators Tuesday evening began with a clear focus on the contentious issue of teacher pay but soon strayed afield into a discussion of the double-edged sword of technology in classrooms.
Sen. William Laird acknowledged, “We need to empower teachers to teach.”
He cautioned the more than 20 concerned educators gathered in the Greenbrier County Library, however, that it appears lawmakers will have to deal with a “hole in (next year’s) budget” amounting to between $250 million and $300 million. With that kind of revenue shortfall confronting them, Laird said legislators will be hard-pressed to come up with a salary hike for teachers.
Delegate Ray Canterbury explained that the state’s budget-making faces three hurdles heading into the new year: declining coal revenue, plunging gambling revenue and increasing Medicaid costs.
The West Virginia Education Association, which sponsored Tuesday’s meeting in Lewisburg, presented hard figures showing how teacher pay in West Virginia stacks up against earnings in bordering states. West Virginia teachers’ pay deficit in relation to those other states in the last school year (2012-13) ranged from a low of $3,464 when compared to Virginia’s average salary to a high of $18,860 compared to Maryland’s.
In that period, West Virginia teachers made an average annual salary of $45,453, according to the WVEA’s figures, ranking them 48th in the nation.
Rupert Elementary School teacher Jennifer Hanson told the legislators, “We bust our hind ends every day. It’s time to take care of the teachers.”
Kay Smith, a member of the Greenbrier County Board of Education and a retired educator, echoed Hanson’s sentiments, describing the many duties a teacher must perform in addition to actual teaching as a “Dagwood sandwich.” That overstuffed “sandwich” includes such tasks as giving tests on computers that often don’t work, conducting meetings and collecting money for field trips, Smith said.
Expanding upon that topic, another teacher derided unrealistic state and federal requirements that decree students as young as 8 take tests that include writing compositions on a computer. These are children, she said, that haven’t yet developed the manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination to be able to grip a computer mouse, click on the appropriate command or drag graph components from one area of the screen to another.
Yet another teacher said her kindergarten students are required to learn five different computer log-ins before they even learn to write their names.
Teachers have little, if any, say-so in setting the policies they must implement in the classroom, they said.
Delegate George “Boogie” Ambler said he believes much of the blame for both the top-down policies and the education system’s financial woes can be placed at the doorstep of the “real culprit” — the state board of education.
Ambler, who is a school teacher, said he feels the state board should be more accountable to the legislative branch but warned that won’t happen overnight.
Returning to the budgetary issue, Laird said, “It boils down to prioritization. How can we not afford... to make our education system strong enough? This is an investment in the future.”
Saying he is concerned that “philosophical discussions” will derail legislators’ deliberations regarding teacher pay, Sen. Ron Miller noted he believes that the main problem is, “We have no vision for education’s future.”
Hanson said she and her fellow teachers recognize that solutions to the revenue versus pay conundrum won’t be easy, but asked that the legislators before them “chip, chip, chip away” at the problem every day.
“Please help us to be able to function better,” Hanson implored the lawmakers. “We’re asking for your help.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org