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Boone school workers win $2.5M settlement over severe 2016 pay cuts

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Boone school board

The Boone County Board of Education meets at its offices in Foster. 

Nearly four years after the Boone County school system slashed their salaries by thousands of dollars apiece, Boone County public school workers have won a combined roughly $2.5 million settlement.

Around 400 current or former employees were scheduled to pick up their checks over the past couple weeks.

“I’m just glad it’s finally over,” said Heather Hayes, treasurer for Boone’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers union. “We can finally move on and put this past us. This has been four years of a very stressful time in our county. We lost so much.”

Andy Katz, general counsel for the state branch of the National Education Association union, said that by far the most common payout amount for workers was about $7,200.

That is a gross amount, before paycheck deductions for things like retirement are factored in. The Boone school system has to pay the employer’s share of benefits for the payouts.

So, combining that with the $2.5 million, the school system is paying a combined $3 million, said county schools Superintendent Jeff Huffman. He did not provide details on how the school system would shoulder that cost, other than saying the money is coming out of the general budget.

Before the 2016 cuts, which were ordered by the state, Boone County was second only to Putnam County for average school worker pay. Almost exactly four years ago, in June 2016, then-state schools superintendent Michael Martirano abruptly ordered salary cuts of roughly $4,000 per employee.

Martirano said the budget Boone had proposed for the 2016-17 school year wouldn’t have been able to fund teaching students for the minimum required number of instructional days and wouldn’t have been able to pay employees for their full employment terms.

The Boone Board of Education twice refused to obey, but relented in July 2016, after the state Board of Education threatened to seize power from the county board and make the cuts anyway if it refused again.

“Our [county] board members didn’t want to do this to us,” Hayes said. “But they didn’t have a choice. The state department [of education] was like, ‘Do it or there’s going to be repercussions.’”

School officials back then largely blamed the budget woes on sudden coal company bankruptcies and the loss of personal property tax revenue associated with those shutdowns.

Then-state school board vice president Lloyd Jackson, however, criticized Boone for burning through its reserves in the previous few years. The judge in employees’ resulting grievance case also noted these years of declining funds.

Starting in August 2016, members of the local branches of the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and West Virginia School Service Personnel Association filed what became a mass consolidated grievance against the county school system.

Both sides had appealed the disagreement to the courts after state Public Employees Grievance Board Chief Administrative Law Judge Billie Thacker Catlett gave a ruling early last year that didn’t specify how much workers were owed.

The judge dismissed the employees’ claims for the employer-paid dental and vision insurance coverage they lost to the cuts, but she also accused the Boone school system of misspending excess levy property tax funds on improper expenses.

She wrote that in “2017 and 2018 [the Boone school board] failed to spend more than $5.5 million [of] excess levy funds on excess levy purposes,” and one of that levy’s purposes was to fund the county’s salary supplements.

She also said it didn’t matter that Boone did this under the threat of a takeover by the state school board.

“The State Superintendent cannot order those funds to be used for another purpose because that would be in violation of law,” she wrote. “When the State Board of Education directed a county board to apply excess levy funds improperly, the county board was not absolved of liability.”

But she also wrote that “it is impossible to tell from the evidence presented in this case how much [the school system] paid in actual county supplements each year, as opposed to its share of the State supplement amount, or how much excess levy money would have been available to pay.”

The state board now has almost entirely different members, and Martirano is gone.

Current state Department of Education spokeswoman Christy Day wrote in an email Friday the state-ordered cuts were “to ensure that the county was able to meet its financial obligations, including employee payroll.” She said neither the state board nor the department had comments to offer on Boone’s settlement.

Boone didn’t admit wrongdoing in the settlement.

“It is further agreed that the Settlement Payment made by the County Board is not payment of the salary supplement,” the settlement says, “but is a mere payment paid to the grievants as a compromise to settle any and all claims.”

However, the mediation agreement attached to the settlement document said the amount paid to employees is based on 90% of the “16-17 and 17-18 supplemental salary.”

When a county school board asks voters to raise their own property taxes — called an excess levy — to provide the local school system more support, it must tell voters what it will spend that extra income on. County salary supplements for the school years 2016-17 and 2017-18 were part of what Boone’s school board told voters they were voting for when those voters agreed to pass the excess levy. At the start of the 2018-19 school year, Boone partially reinstated the salary supplement.

Katz, the general counsel for the state National Education Association branch, said law supports having to pay for what voters pass in these excess levies.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

Funerals for Friday, July 3, 2020

Austin, Daniel - 12:30 p.m., Austin-Hope-McLeod Cemetery, Gallipolis Ferry.

Browning, James - 1:30 p.m., Pineview Cemetery, Orgas.

Cogar, Lela - 11 a.m., Dodd & Reed Funeral Home, Webster Springs.

Cook, Thermal - 1 p.m., Haven of Rest Memory Gardens, Red House.

Estep, Jerry - 2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Grose, Violet - 2 p.m., Phillips Cemetery, Ovapa.

Hager, Vaughn - 2 p.m., Casto Funeral Home, Ravenswood.

Ratliff, Karen - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.

Rose, Mary - 3 p.m., Mollohan Cemetery, Birch River.

Smith, Dorothy - 11 a.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens.