The West Virginia Legislature is on track to, early next week, pass a bill that may mean fewer public school workers getting a raise.
The omnibus education law, passed back in 2019, raised pay for special education teachers. House Education Committee senior policy analyst Dave Mohr told delegates it was roughly a $1,500 salary increase.
This year’s bill (Senate Bill 680) would add that the state schools superintendent gets to define what special education teacher means in that section. So, he would get to pick who gets the raise.
House Education Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, said he expects employees who have already started receiving the raise would be allowed to continue to do so. But the bill doesn’t specify that.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association school employee union, said “I’m sure we will look at” the legal question of whether it would impact workers who already got the raise.
“It’s just a bad bill in a series of bad bills,” Lee said.
Current law already specifies that the raise is just for “each classroom teacher certified in special education and employed as a full-time special education teacher.”
But state Department of Education representatives have said the department’s interpretations of that line have been disregarded in some official grievance cases filed by school workers.
Department spokeswoman Christy Day provided documents from 2019, under the previous state superintendent, showing the department determined that these teachers generally weren’t eligible for the raise: adult basic education teachers, alternative education teachers, English-as-a-second-language teachers, individualized education plan/program compliance specialists and speech pathologists.
“Any substantive change to current practices is not anticipated,” Day said.
Last year, a Barbour County speech-language pathologist won an official grievance to receive the raise.
“Speech pathology is considered part of special education in West Virginia,” the administrative law judge wrote in that grievance ruling — though he also noted specifics related to that individual employee that further suggest she is a special education teacher. The Barbour school system has appealed the ruling to the courts.
In a March 12 Senate committee meeting, Sarah Stewart, legislative liaison for the education department, said the Barbour decision increased the cost of the omnibus law’s raise by $1 million by expanding who gets it.
Senators were discussing then a separate bill that would’ve ended school employees’ chance of winning grievances if the state superintendent disagreed with the workers’ position. The House Judiciary Committee killed that bill Wednesday.
But on March 27, the Senate passed this bill 22-11 on a mostly party-line vote. Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, voted with Republicans for the bill, Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, voted with Democrats against it, and Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, was absent.
On Thursday, the House Education Committee advanced this bill to the floor of the full House in a divided vote.
Department of Education Operations Officer Amy Willard told the committee that speech-language pathologists aren’t the only ones attempting to also get the raise.
“I personally had to testify in a grievance where an ESL teacher, an English-as-a-second-language teacher, was trying to claim that she was a special education teacher,” Willard said.
But, seemingly contradicting what Stewart previously said about the Barbour speech-language pathologist grievance ruling’s broad impact, Willard said “we do not believe that grievance automatically applies to all speech-language pathologists, that it just applied to those specific sets of facts for that individual.”
Delegate Cody Thompson, D-Randolph and a public school teacher, noted that students who receive speech therapy from speech-language pathologists have individualized education plans/programs. Those plans, often abbreviated IEPs, are a fundamental part of providing special education services.
Willard responded that “it was our opinion that the speech-language pathologists were more of a medical professional than an actual classroom teacher.”
Thompson chuckled and said “OK, I see, but I respectfully disagree with that, considering they are assisting, you know, students with IEPs” to be successful in class.