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W.Va. BOE wary of teacher unions in reform talks

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The members of the West Virginia Board of Education knew that responding to a $750,000 audit of the state's public education system would be politically dangerous.

If they outright agreed with the audit that tenure decisions should be tied to a teacher's effectiveness, the unions would jump down their throats.

If they came out and said a new teacher evaluation system should be used to pay good teachers more and fire bad teachers, it would put lawmakers into a politically compromising situation.

If they gave principals too much power over hiring teachers based only on qualifications rather than on seniority, they knew there would be a union backlash.

But the board had to give the public a real response to the $750,000 education audit, which was released by the governor in January.

The audit, conducted by Pennsylvania-based firm Public Works LLC, said West Virginia has one of the most highly regulated education systems in the country and recommends a series of major educational changes -- from recruiting and retaining teachers to implementing energy policies in schools that would save millions. If fully implemented, the audit said, West Virginia could save $90 million a year on its education system.

At a retreat at Stonewall Resort in March, the nine-member board went point-by-point through all the audit's 100-plus recommendations to draft a response. In some cases, they decided to keep their comments vague and use language that wouldn't incite union anger.

In others, they pushed the thorny specifics onto the Legislature.

On several issues, though, they took a firm reform stand that pits them against the state's two largest unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia Education Association.

In a voice recording and draft audit response obtained this week by the Gazette-Mail, the state's top education policymakers candidly detailed all of the messy political concerns wrapped up in responding to a sweeping audit of the state's public education system.

Foremost in the board members' minds on some of the audit's most controversial recommendations -- such as starting a Teach for America program and allowing principals to hire teachers independent of seniority -- was how West Virginia's powerful teachers' unions and politicians would react to their proposals.

 

Hiring on qualifications, not seniority

West Virginia Code ... in practice, severely limit[s] a principal's ability to recommend for hiring the most qualified and best person for a position if that person is a new employee to the system. While intending to permit the hiring of the most qualified teacher, it in effect defines the most qualified as a teacher in good standing already employed by the county. -- Education Audit

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."


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