Education Bill Debate Becomes Fight Over How to Hire Teachers

CHARLESTON (AP) – Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s bid to rewrite teacher hiring practices has sparked an early battle as the Legislature wades through his proposed overhaul of West Virginia’s public schools.

Much of the fight revolves around seniority. Tomblin wants it placed among eight factors, including specialized training, relevant experience and academic credentials. County boards would decide which to emphasize when choosing applicants.

The bill also would allow counties to repost job openings to attract additional applicants. It calls on boards to consider what principals and faculty senates recommend, while providing a process for faculty to interview and then weigh in on candidates. Other proposed changes include scaling back seniority’s role in transfers when teaching posts are reduced within a school or a county, a process known as bumping.

Supporters include superintendents in counties both large and small, who say these provisions grant needed flexibility. Teachers unions have denounced them while objecting to the bulk of Tomblin’s overall legislation.

The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia warned members in a bulletin last week that the proposed changes shortchange long-serving educators and “severely impair teacher bidding rights for vacancies.”

“It takes us back to the day when hiring was very subjective, when you could hire your nephew right out of school,” AFT-WV President Judy Hale said.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, questioned the governor’s decision to include these provisions in his bill.

“No one has shown me how the current system doesn’t provide the most qualified teacher,” Lee said. “It plays to the misconception out there that seniority is the deciding factor, and it’s not.”

County boards are now supposed to give equal weight to seniority and six other factors when applicants include current educators. But state law also requires a written explanation when a candidate with the most seniority isn’t picked, if that candidate requests one. Tomblin’s bill removes that language.

“It’s my feeling that it does weigh heavily toward seniority as one of the criteria,” Wood County schools Superintendent Pat Law said of the existing process. “Ultimately, when you are trying to find the best candidate, many times the most senior person is absolutely the best person for the job. However, there are times when seniority and having the credential doesn’t create the best choice for instruction in that classroom.”

West Virginia’s fastest-growing school district, Berkeley County, would benefit from the proposed changes, said Superintendent Manny Arvon. The state’s second-largest school system, Berkeley typically hires 170 to 180 teachers a year, Arvon estimated.

Besides seeing enrollment increase by 6,100 students in the 16 years he’s been superintendent, Berkeley County constantly loses teachers to districts in neighboring Maryland and Virginia that offer markedly higher salaries, Arvon said.

While seniority is not always a factor in his county, given the turnover, “the language in the bill helps the school keep the best teacher, and not always the most senior one,” Arvon said.

“Seniority probably has its place but it shouldn’t be the deciding factor,” Arvon said. “The job should always go to the best teacher.”

Both Arvon and Pendleton County schools Superintendent Doug Lambert said they’ve always tried to include teachers and principals in hiring decisions. Both welcomed that part of Tomblin’s measure.

“If they’re going to work in your building, you ought to have a say as to whether they fit in that building,” said Lambert, a superintendent for eight years.

Lambert, whose district includes around 1,100 students and 92 teachers, said seniority can play an oversized role. Being allowed to re-post a vacancy also would help his small county, if the initial applicant or two it now draws aren’t good fits, he said.

“Counties are unique and what I like about the bill is that it recognizes they are unique,” Lambert said.

Tomblin’s 179-page bill follows a wide-ranging audit of West Virginia’s education system that contrasted low student performance with hefty public spending. Scrutinizing the high volume of rules and top-heavy bureaucracy, the audit said the current hiring policy “is extremely restrictive and provides no incentives or creative options for districts to attract or retain high-quality teachers, especially in low-income areas of the state.”

“During this review, several interviewees cited examples of times principals will choose to employ long-term substitute teachers rather than hire a current employee, who on paper meets the criteria for the position, but whom they believe is not the best match for the job,” the audit report said.

The Senate Education Committee began reviewing Tomblin’s bill last week, and expects to hear from the teachers’ groups and other interested parties during further meetings this week.