By JOHN YODER
May 11 was the 25th anniversary of the Recht decision, which continues to be used to hamper our children's education in the Eastern Panhandle.
Circuit Judge Arthur Recht handed down his now famous ruling in the case of Pauley vs. Bailey on May 11, 1982.
The West Virginia Legislature wrongly uses the Recht decision to justify inadequate funding for education in the Eastern Panhandle.
Legislative leaders argue that the decision requires equalizing education funding across West Virginia and for teachers' salaries to be the same across the state. Thus, Jefferson and Berkeley counties, despite high housing costs, are generally funded no more per student than McDowell County, even though residents there only pay an average of $61 per year in property taxes while Jefferson County and Berkeley County residents pay $1,220 and $943 per year in property taxes respectively.
The irony of the Recht decision is while it recognizes the difference in property tax assessments and collections in counties and holds that differences in property tax collections from county to county cannot be used to fund schools differently, there is no recognition that teachers face widely varying housing costs across West Virginia.
The equal funding and equal pay interpretation of the Recht Decision may have made some sense a quarter of a century ago, but regional housing costs today have substantially changed since then. Eastern Panhandle housing costs, population and property taxes have all skyrocketed, while other areas in West Virginia have stagnant or declining population and housing markets. Some places, such as Logan County and McDowell County, even have declining property taxes.
The plaintiff in the Recht case alleged that due to the existing discriminatory mechanism of financing the state's education system based upon local property tax collections, Lincoln County children were being denied a "thorough and efficient system of free schools" and equal protection under the laws, both being violations of our state constitution. In ruling for Pauley on these grounds, the court held that the Legislature has the constitutional duty "to develop a high quality Statewide education system."
This has resulted in a perverse implementation of the Recht decision today in Jefferson and Berkeley counties, where counties are not allowed to keep their tax revenue to build schools needed to keep pace with population growth. While Jefferson and Berkeley counties have to send their children to schools in temporary trailers, the property taxes collected in Jefferson and Berkeley goes to fund education in counties that have adequate bricks and mortar school buildings yet have declining student populations.
Additionally, teachers in many counties have one of the best paid jobs and if a teacher vacancy occurs, 200 applicants will apply. Contrast that to Berkeley County with approximately 200 teacher vacancies and Jefferson County with approximately 60 teacher vacancies. Those positions are filled by substitute and under-qualified teachers.
Is education in Berkeley and Jefferson counties' temporary trailers the "high quality statewide education system" contemplated by the Recht decision? Is our teacher shortage filled by unqualified substitutes consistent with the "high quality statewide education system" contemplated by the Recht decision? I contend the answer is "no" in both instances.
Teachers in the Eastern Panhandle are burdened with housing costs that are much higher than other parts of West Virginia. Also, teachers in Jefferson and Berkeley can raise their salaries another $20,000 or so by commuting to neighboring Loudoun, Frederick or Washington counties to teach. So teacher pay should be higher in Jefferson and Berkeley counties. Locality pay would provide higher salaries to help attract and retain qualified teachers here.
Because of the perverse application of the Recht decision, many residents of Jefferson and Berkeley counties say the Recht decision needs to be reversed. I contend an argument can be made the decision simply needs to be enforced in light of current facts.
Berkeley and Jefferson county schools should be funded adequately to build bricks and mortar schools and to attract qualified teachers to fill all positions. A $35,000 salary in Jefferson or Berkeley County does not have the same buying power for housing related costs as a $35,000 salary in McDowell County.
Perhaps it is time for parents to demand that the courts enforce the Recht decision based on regional housing cost realities. Just as Lincoln County students were entitled to a thorough and efficient school system 25 years ago under our state constitution, Residents of Jefferson and Berkeley counties are entitled to an adequately funded, thorough and efficient school system today on this 25th anniversary of the Recht decision.
Yoder is a state senator representing the 16th Senate District which includes all of Jefferson County and most of Berkeley County. He can be reached at SenatorYoder@aol.com.