NEW CUMBERLAND - Of everything that the Hancock County Schools excess levy pays for, salaries and benefits represent the biggest slice of the pie.
The five-year levy, which is up for renewal on Nov. 9, generates an estimated $7.1 million toward the school district's annual budget of $43 million. An estimated $4.8 million from the levy is designated for salaries and benefits, Superintendent Suzan Smith said.
"It would be devastating if we didn't have this (levy) for staffing," Smith said in a recent interview.
Hancock County Schools paid nearly $40 million in salaries and benefits in the 2012-2013 school year, so the excess levy covers about 12 percent of all annual salary and benefit costs, said Joe Campinelli, finance director.
Of that $4.8 million, $3.5 million is designated for salary supplements for teachers, service personnel and administrators, plus fixed charges such as Social Security, unemployment compensation and workers' compensation.
Salary supplements are important, Smith said, because they allow Hancock County to pay teacher wages higher than the state minimum. Northern Panhandle counties are unique in West Virginia because they are in direct competition with Ohio and Pennsylvania by virtue of their geography, she said.
"We wouldn't get the quality we get (without the salary supplements)," Smith said. "We have to compete against Ohio and Pennsylvania."
"If the excess levy didn't exist, the supplements would be gone," school board President Jerry Durante said.
Hancock County ranks 13th in the state for average teacher salary, according to the West Virginia Department of Education. The average salary for Hancock County teachers for the current school year is $47,687, according to the WVDE.
In a state where teacher wages are depressed - West Virginia ranks 48th in the United States for teacher salaries - county supplements can add substantially to a teacher's pay, said Melanie Donofe, president of the Hancock County Education Association.
"We have teachers leaving all the time to go to greener pastures," Donofe said. "If you jump over to Pennsylvania, you can make anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 more."
Teachers in West Virginia do not have collective bargaining rights and their pay scale is set by the state Legislature, Donofe said. No salary increase was passed in the 2013 legislative session.
The average teacher salary in West Virginia is $45,453, compared to $57,140 in Ohio and $62,569 in Pennsylvania, according to the West Virginia Education Association.
The WVEA is preparing to lobby for a teacher salary increase in the 2014 legislative session. The WVEA "We Deserve Competitive Pay" campaign notes, for example, that while superintendents' salaries from 2003 to 2013 increased by an average of $33,204, teachers' salaries increased by an average of $6,956.
For now, Donofe wants to keep the focus on the local levy, which she is promoting by reminding voters that it is a renewal, not a new tax, and that it covers daily operating expenses. The local teachers' union helped pay for the printing of a brochure that is being used in the levy campaign.
"The people of Hancock County have always supported the students, so we're hoping they support the students again and see that this is for operations," Donofe said. "We've passed it every time it's been up for renewal, and that's what we need to do again."
In addition to salary supplements, Smith said the levy helps cover:
Extra duty wages and fixed charges for academic and athletic trips ($120,000);
Extra duty salary supplements and fixed charges for curricular positions ($70,000);
Extracurricular athletic position wages ($525,000);
Substitute wages ($165,000);
Dental and optical insurance ($375,000); and
Supplemental contracts for summer school, counselors and Saturday school ($75,000).
The allocation for teacher, service and administrative salary supplements is being adjusted downward from $3.6 million to $3.5 million, Smith said, but the overall levy contribution to salaries and benefits will increase from $4.7 million to $4.8 million - mainly because of a $175,000 increase for coaches' salaries, she said
As with teachers, the demands on coaches are growing as more is expected of them after-hours and during the summer months, Smith said. Hancock County is one of the lowest counties for coaches' salaries among the five counties - Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall, Wetzel - in Regional Education Service Agency 6, she said.
"In order for us to be in line with the other counties in our RESA, we are going to have to increase salaries (for coaches)," she said.
The other anticipated increase is for dental and optical insurance for professional and service employees - from $325,000 to $375,000, Smith said.
Along with the increase in health care costs, Hancock County Schools have seen growth in the number of full-time equivalency staff - from 570 in the 2007-2008 school year to 586 in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the WVDE.
At the same time, the district has been losing enrollment. The October 2012 head count revealed a loss of 130 students from the previous school year - from 4,332 to 4,202. That enrollment drop precipitated a $644,513 drop in state aid to Hancock County Schools, prompting teacher layoffs last spring.
Smith said enrollment has since stabilized, partly because of the expansion of pre-kindergarten this year. Although enrollment numbers for the current school year are not yet available, Smith said, "We didn't lose as many this year."
Smith said the FTE employment numbers don't tell the whole story. Because of the drop in state aid, the school board announced in February that 21 teachers had been targeted for a reduction-in-force. The board called some of those teachers back in May, resulting in a net RIF of 15 teachers, Smith said.
Some staff reductions were handled through retirement and attrition, Smith said. Betty McGillen, whose retirement as director of pre-K, elementary education and Title 1 was effective July 1, has not been replaced, she said.
"We look at every position to see how we can possibly combine them," she said.