CHARLES TOWN – Delegate John Doyle, now serving his 10th two-year term as a state Democratic representative for Jefferson County, has seen innumerable public policy decisions in government come and go.
Sparring firsthand in public debates before many of those decisions were made, Doyle said elected officials and the state and local governments they oversee should be doing a lot more debating and explaining than they’re doing now.
“It just seems to me like in recent years there is less transparency on the part of government at all levels,” he said.
Doyle made the observation while he was asked about the Jefferson County Board of Education’s decision in June to approve at least $294,000 (and counting) worth of annual pay raises to 38 school administration positions.
Eleven weeks after the school board approved the raises without a public discussion or explanation, school officials still have not released all of the information necessary to calculate how much special local “stipend” pay is given to every administrator and central office staffer.
A member of the West Virginia House Education Committee, Doyle said the timing of the targeted pay raises — which did not include frontline classroom teachers or school service personnel — appeared troublesome. Approving the raises in the middle of a pandemic should also be explained, he said.
Adopting the pay raises without full disclosure, discussion and explanation hurts the school board’s and the school system leadership’s credibility, Doyle said.
“They should have had a full discussion at a public board meeting as to why these [pay raises] are justified — a full explanation,” he said. “And apparently that wasn’t done.
“I do think they’re better off if they’re transparent because they’ll get more local buy-in to what they’re doing.”
Doyle said not enough details are known to judge whether the school board deliberately attempted to hide the pay raises from the public.
“I don’t know enough to accuse anybody of anything nefarious,” he said. “I do think that we should always go out of our way to be transparent and let the public know what’s going on and why it’s going on.”
A Shepherdstown resident, Doyle is running for re-election to the District 67 delegate seat this November against retired business consultant Elliot Simon, a Jefferson County Republican Executive Committee member.
Simon and Doyle admit they disagree on most issues. But when it comes to the way the school board approved the administrator pay raises, they both questioned the lack of transparency involved.
“No one knew about this,” Simon wrote in reply to a request for comment from the Spirit. “The raises were included in a document where no one would have known they were there. Before we can even evaluate the necessity of the raises we should try to understand why the [school] board went about this in this way.”
“The fact that it was done in this manner makes one think that they didn’t want the public to know about it,” he concluded. “This needs to be explained to the public.”
The school board’s action on the personnel policy changes occurred during two public meetings. One meeting took place on June 8, when the policy updates, but not the pay raises, were initially explained and discussed for about 15 minutes. Another meeting occurred on June 22, when the policies were discussed for less than two minutes and then adopted.
Responding Aug. 4 to questions submitted in writing from the Spirit of Jefferson, Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson stated that the pay increases for the 38 positions were adopted “to recruit and retain the highest quality staff.”
Gibson wrote that locally funded stipend pay scales that boost pay for “building administrators and athletic coaches” were last updated in 2008.
She also shared this explanation in writing: “In concert with these efforts, Jefferson County recently updated the 15-year-old, flat rate stipend system to an index system. Before revision, service and professional stipend dollar amounts were the exact same amount as when initiated in 2005 and were never updated to keep pace with inflation or surrounding school systems.”
If the school administrators didn’t receive the same raises in the past that school teachers and service workers received from state and county funds, Doyle said, perhaps the current pay raises might be appropriate.
Last year the school system employed 750 teachers and 530 service personnel. Doyle pointed out that, given the $294,000 cost (and rising) known of the pay raises so far, every frontline school employee could have received at least a $230 pay raise with the money spent on the administrator pay increases.
“It may very well be that they ended up making the right decision,” he said of the school board’s action. “I do trust them on that, but it’s a lot more difficult for the general public to trust them if they don’t tell the public why they did it. It’s simple.”
THE LEVY, BOND VOTES
Doyle said he worries that how the pay raises were handled puts both a proposed $22.5 million annual excess property tax levy and a proposed $43.5 million school facilities bond on the November ballot for voter approval in danger.
The excess levy, an added or “extra” property tax, would provide $17.6 million toward various school employee salaries. The 15-year bond, in part, would fund the construction of two new elementary schools, one school in Ranson and one in Shepherdstown.
Doyle said he plans to vote in favor of the bond issue and the excess levy. But he’s not sure enough of his constituents, including school system employees, feel the same way.
“I think the bond issue is in trouble,” he said. “I’m afraid this [administrator pay raise] may put the levy in jeopardy.
“I am concerned that what appears to be a lack of transparency would endanger both of them.”
Doyle said he previously heard “rumblings” from several Shepherdstown residents who want a new elementary school built on the current school’s site, which allows many children to walk to their classes. School officials have purchased land to build the school, and potentially a new middle school, on land outside of town.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people in town that don’t want the school as far away as they’re going to put it,” Doyle explained. “Kids walk to that school, and they’re not going to be able to where they’re putting the new one.”
Before temporarily stepping away from state politics in 2012 to serve as West Virginia’s deputy secretary of revenue, Doyle thought back then that state and local government wasn’t open and transparent enough, he said.
“But we were a heck of a lot more transparent then than state and local government have been since,” he observed.
From Doyle’s perspective, Gov. Jim Justice’s administration — a Republican regime Doyle is not shy about criticizing — has been a major transgressor in trampling upon transparency.
More locally, Doyle claims other big offenders of open government principles have been the previous board of directors for the Jefferson County Development Authority as well as some current and past members of the Jefferson County Commission.
“There’s something about people taking these positions and not thinking that they have to tell the public what’s going on,” Doyle charged. “It’s almost like they seem to think that they’re on the board of directors of a private corporation. I’ve noticed more of this just in the last half-dozen years.”
That JCDA board oversaw the recruiting of the Rockwool factory now under construction near Kearneysville that became controversial. Doyle opposes the Rockwool factory project for various reasons. One reason, he said, was the secrecy with which too much information about the Danish mineral wool manufacturer’s project was kept from the public for too long.
The JCDA board has since been reconstituted in response to the Rockwool controversy.