Delegate Tiffany Lawrence and I spent about a half hour this week on the phone with Pete Dougherty, President of the Jefferson County Board of Education, talking about the prospect of layoffs of teachers and school service workers.
A few weeks ago quite a number of teachers and service workers received notices telling them they would be terminated at the conclusion of this school year. The terminations became necessary because local property tax collections were behind estimates for this year.
Property value assessments for tax purposes tend to trail the real estate market by several years. Since the housing "bubble" burst a few years ago we legislators have been getting calls from our constituents complaining that their real estate property taxes were rising while the actual values were declining.
Taxes have now caught up with the market. Collections are declining by several million dollars per year. So the school system must cut its budget. Now legislators are getting calls and emails from school system employees wondering about their future.
Not everyone getting a notice of termination will actually be terminated. Let's say three teachers are teaching the same subjects, are equally qualified and have equal seniority. Let's say one must go. In that case all three will get termination notices. This is because state law requires the school board to treat each employee in danger of being terminated as though that employee faced the worst case scenario. The decision as to who will go will be made at a later date, after more information is obtained.
People who are not officially qualified to teach the subjects they're teaching will get terminated before those who are officially qualified. And less senior employees will be terminated before more senior ones. All these rules are in West Virginia law.
Clearly, some people will be terminated who are doing excellent teaching jobs. Someone who is not officially qualified to teach a particular subject may be very good at teaching it. And some newly hired teachers are quite good. But these are West Virginia's personnel rules.
Any person terminated will be given an opportunity to appeal to the full Board of Education. That appeal may be heard in public or in "executive session" (private). It's the employee's choice as to which.
Delegate Lawrence and I were caught unawares about these layoffs. A couple of months ago we and the rest of Jefferson County's legislative delegation attended a meeting with the members of our local school board at which Mr. Dougherty and the others told us that things were in pretty good shape. No mention was made of any potential layoffs.
Mr. Dougherty told Delegate Lawrence and me that the board members, too, were caught off guard at the news of reduced funding due to lower property tax collections. He said he encourages any person who receives a notice of termination to request an appeal hearing.
We're hearing national news indicating that the housing market may finally have hit bottom and may even be starting to gain ground again. Even if it is there will be several years before property tax collections begin to rise.
We may even have another year or so of further reductions in property tax collections (again, collections trail the market by several years). If we do have another year of reduced property tax revenue I hope some way can be found to avoid any further RIF's ("reductions in force").