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Teacher hiring policy debated

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- How strong a factor is seniority when teachers are hired in West Virginia?

That's being debated at the statehouse.

Delegate Josh Stowers, D-Lincoln and assistant principal at Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston, says experience tells him seniority is the deciding factor.

"I know it is, because I do it every year," Stowers said Thursday from his office at the Capitol.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin specifically mentioned seniority and hiring practices for teachers Wednesday night during his State of the State address.

Current practices at times prevent schools from hiring the best teachers, Tomblin said.

He said seniority should be considered but should not be the "only decisive or controlling action of hiring practices."

Right now, that's exactly how it is, Stowers said.

Every summer, a school's administrators will post available positions, he said. And every time they get applicants, the list is ranked in order of seniority.

It's not that he's against seniority - he said it's an important factor. But it should be one of many factors, in his opinion.

"There needs to be more to hiring a teacher than just seniority," Stowers said.

State Superintendent Jim Phares thinks common ground can be found on the subject of seniority. "You know, experience is not a bad thing, and why people make it a bad thing, I'm not sure," Phares said. "But, I think it . . . shouldn't be allowed to have a holding place to keep great teachers from teaching."

Teacher union officials and House Education Chair Mary Poling, D-Berkeley, say seniority is not the only factor in current hiring procedures.

"It is one of seven or eight other criteria used to hire teachers," Poling said Wednesday night following the governor's speech.

Those criteria are specifically laid out in code, Poling said. She pointed to the portion of the code that says each of the criteria is to be weighed equally.

She was referring to Chapter 18A-4-7a, the section of the West Virginia Code that deals with the hiring of public school teachers.

Seven criteria are listed: appropriate certification, licensure or both; total amount of teaching experience; the existence of teaching experience in the required certification area; degree level in the required certification area; specialized training directly related to the performance of the job as stated in the job description; receiving an overall rating of satisfactory in the previous two evaluations conducted pursuant to law; and seniority.

While the word "seniority" is mentioned only once, Poling said some view some of the other criteria as being similar in meaning.

"Some interpret the other criteria as having a seniority component. One of them is the experience in teaching in that field," Poling said. "Some would say, 'Well, that has a seniority component to it.' " And even though "seniority" appears only once in the listing of the seven criteria, it appears 24 times in that section of code.

Poling said she would be willing to look at changes in hiring practices but doesn't want the conversation to turn into blaming teachers for poor student achievement.

Dale Lee, head of the West Virginia Education Association, also mentioned the number of criteria listed in the code in a recent interview with the Daily Mail.

On Wednesday night he said there was no proof the current hiring system didn't work.

Christine Campbell, presidentelect of the state of the American Federation of Teachers, agrees.

"There is no research to show that by not hiring that most senior person, that your children, that their academic achievement doesn't go up. Show me the evidence, and we'll talk. " Campbell said Wednesday night.

Stowers is a member of the WVEA and was endorsed by the union in September. However, he has been at Horace Mann for 10 years and is confident more flexibility in hiring would yield tangible benefits.

At times a principal might believe someone with less seniority was the better teacher. Failing to hire that person could negatively impact student learning, Stowers said.

"I think the vast majority of administrators are going to pick teachers they feel are going to improve student achievement," he said.

Tomblin said in his speech that teachers and principals must have a greater role in choosing other teachers in their school "if we are going to make schools more accountable for their results."

Campbell said she would be open to more teacher involvement and cited a system already in place in Putnam County.

She doesn't want a system that relies totally on a principal or superintendent's decision.

There are bad apples who want to employ their cousins, Stowers said. But there are ways to involve more people that would improve hiring practices.

Right now Horace Mann tries to involve other teachers, Stowers said. At the middle school level, teachers work in teams. If the school needs to fill a position, administrators will call in other members of the teaching team to sit in on interviews.

Then they, too, experience the frustration.

"I think teachers become much more aware and sensitive to how rigorous our hiring laws are when they are more involved in the process," Stowers said.

Teachers are discouraged when their choice is not the person hired. When their choice is selected, they're more likely to be supportive. They might try to make sure the teacher is successful because they played a role in the hiring.

That team input is a benefit when hiring teachers fresh out of college, Stowers said. If several recent graduates apply for a job, the choice can come down to whom other teachers feel is the best fit.

Changing hiring laws wouldn't necessarily result in better teachers being recruited or retained, he said. Like union officials, Stowers believes teacher pay raises are needed to attract more applicants.

However, he has heard teachers shy away from positions because of fears concerning seniority.

"If teachers knew that they have a better shot than they do now, I think you'd get more applications from within the (school) system," Stowers said.

Stowers, Campbell, Lee and Poling all said they were eager to see what Tomblin would include in his education bill.

Tomblin spokesperson Amy Shuler Goodwin said the administration would discuss the bill after it was introduced sometime next week.

Contract writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.b.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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