Among the audit's chief recommendations was to revamp state rules regarding teacher seniority. The audit said West Virginia should change state code so that principals could hire the most qualified teacher for a job opening rather than the person with the most seniority.
It sounds simple, said board member Lloyd G. Jackson II at the March retreat, but state officials tried it before and it cost them.
"I remember we had that for about two years in West Virginia after we gave teachers a $5,000 pay raise," said Jackson, who used to be a state senator. "We changed the law and it was a quid-pro-quo. I was there when the teachers unions came in and cut the deal. We put seniority on the list for principals to hire teachers, but it was just one thing among others to be considered. But later, people in charge just undid it and changed the law ... and it just became impossible to hire people not based on seniority."
West Virginia law says principals must use seven criteria for hiring a new teacher, and seniority is one area principals must take into account. If a principal chooses to hire a new teacher who does not have the most seniority, "a written statement of reasons shall be given to the applicant with suggestions for improving the applicant's qualifications."
What that boils down to, said Jackson, is that "the senior person gets the job. You have a few principals who stick their neck out, but that's how it is."
Taking out the seniority provision of the hiring law would make the teachers unions go crazy, said board member Lowell Johnson.
"I guess it's a question of whether you want to get into some kind of disagreement with the unions," Johnson said. "I can hear the teachers organizations saying 'This is just another scheme to take away what's already been taken away from us in terms of other benefits we've had.' I don't know whether fighting the teachers unions is a big deal to most people or not ... but I think it can be a big deal. I don't see it accomplishing anything except creating teacher anger throughout the state. So I don't know that it's worth putting a lot of umph into."
Johnson, a member of the state Board of Education since 2004, also is a past WVEA president.
Given the union's influence, board member Priscilla Haden said, "I wouldn't touch it."
On Friday, Judy Hale, president of West Virginia's chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said changing that area of the law would make the state "go back to the days of cronyism and politics."
"That's the reason that seniority was put into code to begin with," said Hale. "People were hiring their relatives, rather than qualified people. That would still be our contention. It happens right now. If that part of the audit becomes part of [the board's] final recommendation, we would come out against it."
Johnson ultimately persuaded the board to write a vague response to the audit's recommendation that didn't mention seniority at all.
"It's easy to say, 'We support hiring the most qualified person for a teaching position,' and then let it go. Period," he said. "Let other people argue that out and about what seniority means."