- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

The Bermuda Triangle of education can be found in the eastern parts of West Virginia: Teachers show up one year and disappear to Maryland, Virginia and other nearby states the next for better pay.

“Over those mountains is where my teachers are going, to Washington County, Frederick County or to other places,” said Jefferson County High School Principal Howard Guth while pointing at the Blue Ridge Mountains near the West Virginia-Maryland state line. “I can’t find anybody who wants to come here.”

Like many principals in the state’s Eastern Panhandle, Mr. Guth scrambled to fill teaching positions this fall. Jefferson County had 85 teaching vacancies the week before school opened and neighboring Berkeley County had 223.

With Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania offering better pay, tuition reimbursements and signing bonuses to recruit within a 20-mile radius — and the high demand for No Child Left Behind-compliant “highly qualified” teachers — many West Virginia educators cannot resist.

Mr. Guth and others say teachers can expect pay increases of $1,000 for every mile they go from Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties.

“I can’t blame the folks who are leaving,” he said. “If you look at our teachers, cooks, custodians — all of our salaries are off considerably from what people can get paid just down the road.”

Teacher staffing has been something of a blood sport in the D.C. region for years, with wealthy Northern Virginia counties such as Loudoun and Fairfax leading the charge.

In Washington County in Maryland, the starting salary for a first-year teacher is $39,217, said Ellen Hayes, a teacher-staffing supervisor for the county.

In 2005-06, Berkeley County paid $28,495, and Jefferson County paid $29,285.

Most administrators do not fault teachers for seeking greener pastures.

Rick Deuell, assistant schools superintendent in Berkeley County, even told his own daughter to take a teaching job in Maryland, despite the difficulty he’s having filling positions.

West Virginia’s teacher salaries are determined by the complicated state-aid formula, created more than 20 years ago after a court ruling called for equity in schooling across the state. Panhandle administrators say the state-funded formula is no longer giving students in their growing area a chance for equal education because highly qualified teachers have been difficult to recruit and retain.

Loudoun County, which is nearby and one of the country’s wealthiest counties, has recruited more out-of-state teachers from West Virginia than anywhere else — 48 for the 2006-07 school year alone. County tax money makes it possible to offer starting salaries of $41,000 for teachers with bachelor’s degrees, and a state cost-to-compete supplement also contributes to that sum.

“Our housing costs are astronomical, so we have to pay the kind of salaries that at least give people a chance to buy real estate,” said county schools Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick. “There was a time 20 years ago that Loudoun was in the same situation (as Eastern Panhandle counties). We were competing with Fairfax and counties closer to D.C.”

As a result, he said, residents became willing to pay more taxes to have the kind of schools they wanted.

The problem isn’t that Panhandle residents aren’t willing to pay more for teachers, said Steven Nichols, Jefferson County schools superintendent. Voters have consistently approved excess levies and bonds. What they’re concerned about is their money going to Charleston to be redistributed to other counties.

“It seems that every year we find a teacher living in a van because they can’t afford housing here,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh, they’d like to live like kings.’ No, they just want to be able to live here, maybe take a vacation, maybe buy a new car every 10 years. But everything here costs more than it does in the rest of the state.”

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