WV Legislature sends governor bill that could eliminate school workers’ raises

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This article was published on the Charleston Gazette-Mail by Ryan Quinn on April 6, 2021.

The West Virginia Legislature passed a bill Tuesday that could mean fewer public school workers, such as speech-language pathologists, get a raise.

Senate Bill 680 now heads to Gov. Jim Justice for his approval or veto. Justice is a Republican and the Legislature is controlled by a Republican supermajority.

In 2019, the Legislature passed an omnibus education law that raised pay for special education teachers. House Education Committee senior policy analyst Dave Mohr previously told lawmakers it was roughly a $1,500 salary increase.

If approved by Justice, this year’s bill would add that the state schools superintendent gets to define what special education teacher means in that section. So, he would get to pick who gets the raise.

House Education Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, has said he expects employees who already have started receiving the raise would be allowed to continue doing so. But the bill doesn’t mandate that the superintendent allow that.

Existing law already specifies that the raise is just for “each classroom teacher certified in special education and employed as a full-time special education teacher.” However, state Department of Education representatives have said the department’s interpretations of that line have been disregarded in some official grievance cases filed by school workers.

“This change allows the state superintendent to clear up any ambiguity in the 2019 legislation, that was intended to provide the extra pay increment to attract and retain qualified special education classroom teachers,” Ellington said Tuesday on the floor of the House of Delegates.

Delegate Cody Thompson, D-Randolph and a public school teacher, urged rejection of the bill.

“I’m going to back our special education teachers, our speech-language pathologists, that go to work every day to make sure our exceptional-needs students are achieving and succeeding,” he said.

Education department spokeswoman Christy Day has provided documents from 2019, under the previous state superintendent, showing the department determined that these teachers generally weren’t eligible for the raise: adult basic education teachers; alternative education teachers; English-as-a-second-language teachers; individualized education plan/program compliance specialists; and speech pathologists.

“Any substantive change to current practices is not anticipated,” Day said.

Last year, a Barbour County speech-language pathologist won an official grievance to receive the raise.

“Speech pathology is considered part of special education in West Virginia,” the administrative law judge wrote in that grievance ruling — although he also noted specifics related to that individual employee that further suggest she is a special education teacher. The Barbour school system has appealed the ruling to the courts.

Education department Operations Officer Amy Willard has said speech-language pathologists aren’t the only ones attempting to get the raise.

On Tuesday, the House passed the bill 66-33. Chris Pritt, R-Kanawha, was the only delegate absent.

All 23 Democrat delegates voted no. Ten Republicans joined them: Mark Dean, R-Mingo; Dana Ferrell, R-Kanawha; Riley Keaton, R-Roane; Zack Maynard, R-Lincoln; Ty Nestor, R-Randolph; Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming; Ben Queen, R-Harrison; Christopher Toney, R-Raleigh; Johnnie Wamsley, R-Mason; and Evan Worrell, R-Cabell.

On March 27, the Senate passed the bill 22-11, on a nearly party-line vote. Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, voted with Republicans for the bill, Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, voted with Democrats against it, and Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, was absent.