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Justice says he is flexible if bigger teacher pay raises are advanced by legislators

Gov. Jim Justice indicated flexibility if lawmakers choose a pay raise for educators at a higher price tag than he’s already advocated.

“There’s plenty of wiggle room in mine,” Justice said during an administration briefing.

“If we have dollars, these folks are hard-working. We need to attract more, whether it be our state employees, our teachers, our service personnel on and on and on.”

Justice in his State of the State address called for average 5% pay raises for state employees at a cost to the state of $123 million. Justice said the pay raise is meant to cover increased costs under the Public Employees Insurance Agency and more.

This week, the House Education Committee advanced bills that would go even farther.

House Bill 4202 raises salaries for school service personnel. It would provide a raise of $670 a month for those workers.

House Bill 4767 would provide pay raises for teachers, saying the change is to “bring them into parity with salaries offered in surrounding states.”

The bill for teachers’ salaries raises the base pay, with starting pay at a bachelor’s degree level at $44,000, and then adjusts for each year of service.

Fiscal estimates suggest the teacher raise bill could total $116 million. The total between the two bills is estimated to be $210 million to $220 million.

House Education Chair Joe Ellington acknowledged the price tag but said committee members have a priority of assuring West Virginia schools can fill positions with competitive pay.

“We have to be competitive with our surrounding states,” he said. “That’s one of the arguments we’ve had — that we’re losing good people to other states. Particularly in the northeast it’s hard to maintain people. People are going to travel to where they can get paid more.”

He said the governor proposed a certain amount of spending for the coming year, and it’s up to the legislative branch to allocate according to its priorities.

“We do have a budget that the governor gave us that has a revenue estimate. How we decide to appropriate all those extra funds that he wanted to put into different things, that’s up to the Legislature to decide,” Ellington said.

Justice said he is glad the Legislature is starting to consider the pay raise, whatever the format.

“We’re going to check the math, and we’re going to mind the store,” he said, “but absolutely I’m all in.”