CHARLES TOWN – Tom Lange has seen a fair number of bureaucratic and legislative ploys to hide unpopular or unsavory dealings during his 33 years in public education, teachers’ union leadership and high-level government service in West Virginia.
But after learning how the Jefferson County Board of Education recently passed selective pay raises — without a public discussion, debate or explanation — worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to 38 school administrative positions, Lange shook his head in astonished disbelief.
“The school board has a lot of explaining to do,” he said during an interview last week. “I’m not going to support that kind of behavior by the board.”
Lange retired after teaching elementary school for 26 years in Jefferson County. He also served for seven years as president for the West Virginia Education Association. Until 2018, he served 12 years on the West Virginia School Building Authority, the powerful panel that distributes millions in state funds for school construction and renovation projects throughout West Virginia.
Lange had a reputation as a blunt-talking, financially hard-nosed member of the SBA who openly shared his views in public. He’s also been an outspoken advocate for classroom teachers and school service workers and, most of all, students.
Teaching well and conscientiously is hard, he offered.
“People who know me know I’m all about teachers, service workers and the kids,” he added. “I’m not a big fan of county office administration making more money than the people making a direct impact on kids every day. That’s me. It’s just who I am.”
Because of the obscurity involved in how pay raises were adopted, Lange said he can’t support the proposed $22.4 million excess property tax levy on this November’s general election ballot. If approved by county voters, the levy would continue to fund, in addition to the administrator pay raises, existing “stipend” pay for about 750 classroom teachers and 530 service personnel.
The pay Jefferson County teachers, administrators and other school employees receive includes a combination of “base” pay from state funds set by the legislature and supplemental “stipend” pay set by the county school board. Stipend pay derives from the excess levy that voters on Election Day are set to either renew for another five years or reject altogether.
Although he supports a $43.7 million school facilities bond on the ballot for approval, Lange said the excess levy — paid on top of “regular” property taxes set by state lawmakers and local governments — was adopted with too little open debate and too little transparency for him to support.
Lange said he supports the facilities bond because he believes that the elementary schools in Shepherdstown and Ranson are outdated and too costly merely to renovate. He said both of the current schools’ sites are “landlocked” and need to be rebuilt on the new properties the school system has already acquired.
“I’d be supporting the levy if it weren’t for this kind of nonsense that they’re doing,” he said of the school board and school administrators. “They did this without anybody in the school system knowing it.
“It’s a real disservice to the citizens of the community that they would act in that fashion and not be open and honest about what they’re doing.”
Lange said he thinks voters, including teachers and school service personnel, should reject the excess levy. That would force the school board and school officials to draft a new levy proposal in an open public forum with input from teachers and service workers, he said.
“Get the stakeholders around the table,” he recommended. “Make it fair for everybody and don’t make it top-heavy.”
“This [administrator pay raise] should never have happened without having a full discussion among the employees,” he explained. “When you talk about the levy, that’s the group that you need to get behind the levy.”
In his leadership role with the teachers’ union, Lange has advocated for several past excess levies in Jefferson County.
He recalled one excess levy early in his career for schools in Jefferson County was defeated at the ballot box twice in the 1970s before that levy passed.
“It took us three times to pass the levy,” he said. “Because you had a group of folks … that were just looking to see just how the money was being spent.”
When he served on the SBA, Lange said, he was keen and careful to make sure that the millions of taxpayer dollars spent on school construction and renovations projects were completed on time and within their allotted budgets. He’d like to know where school officials obtained $294,000 and more from local excess levy taxes to pay the top-level administrator salaries, he said.
“You have to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s dollar,” he said, “and when you spend their money you want to make sure they understand what you’re spending it on and it’s worth spending.”
On June 22, the school board, including four of its current five members, unanimously voted to approve at least $294,000 in pay raises for 38 school administration and program management positions.
The “stipend” pay raises, which are funded through money the school system receives through extra or “excess” property tax levies, were adopted after no public discussion or acknowledgment was made about them. The pay raises were approved as a single chart included within a 325-page document of seemingly routine personnel policy updates.
Twelve 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 pay was given to every administrator.
Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson has stated that the pay increases for the 38 positions were adopted “to recruit and retain the highest quality staff.”
Gibson also shared this explanation in writing for the administrator pay raises: “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.”
Lange said he’s seen no evidence that the school system has difficulty recruiting qualified people for the central administration positions at the salaries provided before the June 22 pay raises were awarded.
“Most of the people [who received raises] were still making pretty good money for living around here,” he said.
Lange also pointed out that the school board changed the formula for calculating the affected administrator salaries — from a flat dollar pay scale to a percentage of their state-provided pay tied to cost of living increases — in a way that will ensure their salaries will continue to rise.
“When the state gives a raise there’s going to be a huge bump for these people,” he said.
Additionally, Lange said some of the school administrators don’t have the experience or higher education degrees to justify the salaries that they’re making.
Comparing one school system’s administrative salaries to another’s can be misleading without considering the responsibilities and experience levels their different staff, he said.
The county’s school administration staff has been growing in recent years, Lange said. The staff is also large compared to those of other school systems in the state, he said.
Last year, Kanawha County operated 75 schools serving 25,373 students with 47 administrative positions. Jefferson County operated 17 schools last year serving 8,942 students with 37 administrative positions.
Just as significant, however, the timing of the administrator pay raises appears questionable, Lange said. That the pay raises were given only to a few administrators in the middle of a pandemic — when classroom teachers are asked to do so much more and many county residents, including 540 workers at the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, have lost their jobs, also appears puzzling, he said.
Meanwhile, the school system has been steadily losing enrollment totaling 260 students over the past four years, he added.
“The thing is, how do you find a quarter of a million dollars during these times?” Lange asked.
Most of all, Lange said, the administrator pay raises emphasize the wrong priorities by overlooking frontline staff and students during this exceptionally challenging time due to the pandemic.
“I know the sacrifices that school employees made in these classrooms, driving these buses, cooking these meals, cleaning these schools,” he said. “Even if you couldn’t give teachers a pay raise, you could sure give them $100 or $150 for everybody in the system to improve their work location.
“I know the schools are always looking for additional dollars to have programs or whatever. Spend it on the kids.”
Lange said the school board’s behavior over the administrator pay raises reminds him of his past experience lobbying for teachers’ issues in Charleston. Lawmakers would sometimes try to obscure dubious measures by burying them deep in bills that were hundreds of pages long.
“There’s an old saying in Charleston, ‘Fat possums move in the dark at night,’ and this is what this is,” he said of the administrator pay raises. “This is something that nobody knew about. They slipped it in.”
“I’ve worked on this stuff forever, and it doesn’t smell good to me,” he continued.