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W.Va. Officials say bond vote might hamper teacher search

June 27, 2005|by DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.VA.

charlestown@herald-mail.com

Local school officials are concerned about their ability to attract teachers in coming years now that voters have rejected a bond issue aimed at helping eliminate debt in pension plans for state employees.

On Saturday, voters in West Virginia rejected Gov. Joe Manchin's proposal for the sale of up to $5.5 billion in bonds to pay off pension plan debt for state employees by a 46 percent to 54 percent margin.

Voters in all three Eastern Panhandle counties rejected it.

At times, the growing school systems in Berkeley and Jefferson counties have been hiring more than 100 employees a year, and the school superintendents in both counties said they are worried that teacher candidates will be turned off about working in Eastern Panhandle schools given the debt hanging over the teacher pension program.

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Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny Arvon said his district has enough problems offering competitive pay, let alone having to worry about the future of state employee pension plans.

"It's not just managing your debt. I looked at this from the Eastern Panhandle point of view. Hopefully, someone else will come up with a different plan," Arvon said.

Not only will it make it harder to attract quality teachers, but dealing with the pension plan debt will threaten state funding for school services because more money will be going to pay off the debt, Jefferson County Superintendent of Schools R. Steven Nichols said.

Nichols said someone needs to come up with a new solution "very quickly."

"We haven't solved the problem. It's still there. It's growing every day. It's a tiger that's just sleeping," Nichols said.

Berkeley County Commission member Howard Strauss said the bond issue failure will not affect county government as much because the county has its own pension program.

Strauss said failure of the bond issue could have a "major effect" on the local schools.

Various concerns about the bond proposal were aired and Manchin - who came to Martinsburg twice in the two weeks before the election to drum up support - tried to diffuse misconceptions about the bond sale before the election.

Selling such bonds would ensure the state would pay $350 million a year for the next 30 years, saving the state millions of dollars in interest, according to Manchin's office.

Without the bonds, the state's annual pension plan-related debt payments will increase annually, ballooning to $724 million in 2034, according to the governor's office.

Manchin said one of the concern's about the bond issue is that it would result in tax increases, which Manchin said would not happen.

Sen. John Yoder, R-Jefferson, said Sunday that there was concern that money from the bond sale would be "squandered" on other things.

Both Republican and Democratic governors have raided state pension plans over the years to fund pay raises for government employees, Yoder said.

Yoder suggested that the state perhaps go back to the voters with a different bond proposal. Perhaps a new bond proposal could be smaller than the one defeated Saturday and include guarantees to address public concerns about the issue, Yoder said.

Sen. John Unger suggested a straightforward approach to dealing with the problem.

Unger said he thinks the state will simply have to keep paying down debt on its employee pension programs and make sure they are funded.

At the same time, the state will have to learn to "say no," such as cutting out tax breaks and giving money grants, Unger said.

"It's a very complicated and complex issue. This is democracy, and we will have go with what the people suggested," said Unger, D-Berkeley.

Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said he would like to revisit the issue somehow, but he sees no way to do so since Manchin has indicated he wants to drop the issue.

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