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Group in W.Va. wants to STEP UP efforts to help teachers

September 06, 2006|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A coalition of parents, teachers and concerned residents has formed to raise money for a possible legal challenge of West Virginia's funding structure for secondary education, state Sen. John Unger told Berkeley County Board of Education members Tuesday evening.

"We're going to go down (to Charleston, W.Va.) with strength, with a STEP UP," said Unger referring to the acronym for the coalition, "Stop Teachers Exodus Please United Parents."

Unger, D-Berkeley, insisted the formation of the group was not an election-year ploy, but the next progressive step to getting the pay area educators deserve, particularly through a possible lawsuit.

"We have excellent teachers," said Unger, who was joined by a few parents and their children. "The only thing we need is more of them."

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In brief remarks, Del. Bob Tabb, D-Jefferson, said state taxes and distribution of that revenue should be fairly applied.

"It's not so much about a teacher issue as it is a student issue," Tabb said of the current funding mechanism in place.

"If they're going to distribute the money equally, then let's tax equally," Tabb said.

Unger said he has researched the issues and talked with parents about the formation of a coalition since the defeat earlier this year of Senate Bill 613, legislation that would have helped area school district leaders with teacher pay and other counties where shortages are particularly acute in language arts and science.

Unger said he was putting his money where his mouth is and made the first donation - $100 - toward helping the group raise money for a possible court battle. Fundraising, he said afterward, would take the form of spaghetti dinners and a variety of other means and he would not set up or run the account for the group.

A coalition meeting is tentatively scheduled later this month, he said.

"We want to cover all bases. We are looking for solutions. We can not tolerate another year of the bleeding, the exodus to continue," Unger said after the meeting.

Unger also later noted that he waited until the latest number of vacancies was tallied before announcing the coalition's formation.

"Of course, I don't need to go over the numbers," Unger said to the board before noting Berkeley and Jefferson county school leaders hired about 113 substitute teachers for the current academic year.

Superintendent Manny P. Arvon later noted in the meeting the school district has had to grapple with 580 vacancies in the last three years.

"We have tried to do everything possible to keep our teachers and recruit others," Arvon said.

Toward the end of the meeting, board member Patrick Murphy asked whether the district had lost more experience than it had gained.

Assistant Superintendent David R. Deuell acknowledged the likelihood of a loss after earlier noting the county's various personnel and professional changes were probably greater than the state's other 54 counties combined.

"We have uncertified people that are doing a good job in the classroom, but that's still a gamble," Murphy said.

Unger noted some progress in the state legislature had been made in the last few years, including his partnership with now former state Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, to allow counties to retain more money for facilities in 2004 and a bill supported by the area delegation to keep funding for increased enrollment in tandem with the actual of number of students enrolled in a given year.

Unger then noted the "brick wall" in the House of Delegates that Senate Bill 613 metaphorically hit in March and cited Gov. Joe Manchin's willingness to place the legislation on the subsequent special session agenda.

In an earlier interview, Unger said the timing of the coalition was important, considering the planned taxation modernization session expected to be called by Manchin in November and expectation that lawmakers will revisit the school aid formula in January.

Unger said he is acting as a facilitator for the coalition and will not actually file the lawsuit.

"My role is to bring the parties together and focus on solutions," Unger said.

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