By CHARLES BOOTH
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Two education-related bills may not advance very far this year, but their sponsors say the push will continue to pass them.
Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, introduced, along with three other delegates, a bill to downsize administrative positions in the state Department of Education.
According to House Bill 2194, “the purpose of this bill is to establish a maximum ratio of the number of employees of the West Virginia Department of Education to the number of students enrolled in the state after June 30, 2019 at not greater than one employee to 2,000 students…”
“I don’t know it will see a lot of action,” he said. “I don’t see that it will be getting a lot of movement.”
A move to decrease the number of jobs in the department has been discussed for some time by Gearheart and other legislators.
In fact, Gov. Jim Justice mentioned the issue in his inaugural address, saying he had a plan to reduce the bureaucracy in the department.
According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, an audit report released in early 2012 showed one state department staffer for every 419 students. Compared with its five neighbors, West Virginia at the time had four times to 11 times as many state-level employees when measured against student populations.
Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, agrees that something needs to be done about it, calling the department “top heavy” in administrators.
Ellington said one of his bills, a move to increase teachers’ salaries to be more competitive with surrounding states, could use part of the funding saved by eliminating some of the unneeded positions in that department.
That money, he said, would go toward teacher pay as well as enhancing classroom opportunities for students.
But he is not optimistic that either bill is moving forward enough this year to have traction.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen this year,” he said. “What is in the governor’s bill is a 2 percent raise for teachers.”
Ellington wants to forego that raise this year and instead re-evaluate and correct the salaries next year.
“We need $4,500 to $5,000 (annual pay hike per teacher) to get them up to the median salaries in surrounding states,” he said. “That would correct the situation.”
If it doesn’t happen this year, he will continue pushing it.
“We’d like to see that down the road and I don’t think we will see it this year,” he said. “But I would love to see it happen.”
Gearheart agreed that such a raise for teachers is unlikely to be passed this year.
“I’m not certain it’s in our current finances,” he said. “It’s a laudable goal, but I don’t think we are ready to do it as long as the money is not there.”
But Ellington is not giving up all hope of anything happening this year, saying if a bill is passed that does lower expenditures, adjustments can be made to accommodate other bills that require more revenue.
Gearheart said he doesn’t see any movement on any legislation aimed at turnpike tolls this session either.
Justice has said he wants to raise tolls for out-of-state motorists and eliminate the toll fees for residents as long as they pay an extra fee on vehicle registration.
The tolls are set to end in 2019 without a legislative extension, though, and Gearheart supports allowing them to end.
“As far as extending the tolls, there is not a bill that has had any movement to do that,” he said. “I frankly see them ending in 2019. It takes action (by the legislature) to go the other way.”
Gearheart said Speaker of the House Tim Armstead agrees with him that the tolls should be removed.
Any increase in toll fees would have to first go through the Parkways Authority, he added. That organization controls the turnpike toll system.
Ellington and Gearheart both have expressed opposition to the governor’s plan to raise the tax on gasoline.
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