Really Tackle School Issues

West Virginia legislators have been set up for a failure that could affect public schools throughout the state, perhaps seriously. It is time to call a “time out” to address not just the current confrontation but more important, the systemic dysfunction of which this is but a symptom.

Dissatisfaction among many Mountain State school teachers has been building for years, much of that time under Democrat control of state government. Now, Republicans who had not been in power for more than 83 years are being told they must address the teachers’ complaints satisfactorily right now.

Give legislators and Gov. Jim Justice credit for trying. House of Delegates members have approved granting teachers pay raises of 2 percent this year and 1 percent in each of the succeeding three years. That would be in addition to the 1.5 percent “step increases” they receive annually. State senators seem to be looking favorably on the proposal.

If adopted, the plan would result in pay raises for teachers between 9-13 percent over five years.

Another major complaint by the teachers and their unions has been the cost of health insurance. Justice and lawmakers are collaborating on a plan to freeze premiums for 17 months.

Not good enough, many of the educators say. They demand a permanent “fix.”

It can’t happen. Ask members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, who have been unable to come up with ways to hold health insurance costs down.

And, as far as higher pay goes, legislators are locked into a no-win situation there, too. The cost of a 2 percent pay raise for all state employees would add about $45 million a year to the state budget. Already this year, there are concerns enough money will be collected to cover existing budget commitments.

Unless their demands are met, say teachers union officials, they may call a statewide strike.

Justice and legislators have proven they are trying to resolve the situation. Doing so will require a major expansion of the budget. It also will mean taking $29 million out of the state’s Rainy Day Fund to forestall health insurance premium increases.

Obviously, that is no solution to higher Public Employees Insurance Agency costs. It is an unsustainable reaction to the threat of a teachers’ strike, perhaps during the next few days.

Why not pause for a few months and craft a major overhaul that could improve West Virginia’s school system — instead of dancing from crisis to crisis?

Legislators and the governor should proceed with the pay raises and PEIA premium subsidies they have planned now. Then, they should arrange for a special session later this year to look at real systemic improvements (see editorial below) that could help teachers, taxpayers — and, most important, Mountain State students.

What guarantee do we have that such an approach would help? None.

But how on earth could it be worse than continually kicking the can down the road?