After more than 20 years in West Virginia schools, Cynthia Rocheck, a special education teacher who lives in the Eastern Panhandle, celebrated her first payday in Loudoun County three weeks ago.
"When I saw my first paycheck, I almost cried all the way home. I was like, 'Thank you, Lord.' It was awesome," she said.
Rocheck, 51, decided to change jobs last year after a divorce led to her borrowing money to cover bills for herself and her two teenagers. She nearly doubled her $44,000 salary by driving over the Blue Ridge Mountains and across the state line.
A former colleague with 23 years of experience at the same Berkeley County high school boosted her salary from $47,000 to $61,000. She did so by trading her five-minute commute for a sometimes two-hour drive, to teach British literature to sophomores at Dominion High School in Sterling. Louise Mann, 54, said she also gained a fully funded pension rather than one that matched her savings.
Such stories are becoming commonplace, particularly in the easternmost reaches of West Virginia, where spillover development from neighboring Frederick and Loudoun counties is driving up property values and where teacher salaries are among the nation's lowest.
Loudoun County spokesman Wayde Byard said teachers from West Virginia, particularly from neighboring Jefferson County, have been "a steady source" of hires over the past several years. Records show that 36 of the county's 741 hires this year have come from the Mountain State.
West Virginia legislators moved last week to slow the exodus of state employees -- not just teachers, but highway maintenance workers and state troopers -- who are crossing borders to find better pay, leaving many positions unfilled in their home towns.
In a special session, the West Virginia Legislature approved raises for thousands of state employees, including a blanket annual increase of $1,350 for teachers.
But many of the state's teachers and union organizers have said the raise is only a start.
"It's a drop in the bucket," said Kym Randolph, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Education Association, a union representing 17,000 of the state's teachers and other professional employees. She said the increase hardly could be enough to sway teachers when counties in neighboring states offer starting salaries of at least $10,000 more.
Rick Deuell, the assistant superintendent who oversees hiring for Berkeley County -- where the largest share of the Eastern Panhandle's growth is occurring -- said the pay disparities mean he cannot recruit enough qualified teachers to fill the new positions.
This year, he has staffed 55 of his 160 openings with long-term substitutes. Because they are not certified in the subjects they teach, he said, the school is falling short of the number of highly qualified teachers required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Jefferson County has hired 80 long-term substitutes this year in teaching positions and still has 16 vacancies, Superintendent Steven Nichols said.
In Virginia schools, local jurisdictions control the main source of school funding: the property tax. That control gives the schools the power to make salaries more competitive. In Loudoun County, the average salary for fiscal 2005 was $55,876, which was significantly higher than the statewide average of $45,034.
In West Virginia, property taxes go into a state fund and are redistributed to counties according to a formula based largely on student population. Counties can augment their state share of funding through levies, but the state limits how much extra money they can raise.
West Virginia's formula was created after the state Supreme Court found in 1982 that poorer counties could not generate enough tax revenue to provide children an adequate education.
Del. Robert Tabb (D-Jefferson) said that a ruling meant to equalize disparities for poor counties is causing hardship for wealthier counties that cannot recruit or retain talented teachers.
That is why delegates from the Eastern Panhandle are developing an alternative funding formula to present in the next legislative session. The new formula would factor in the cost of living, or at least allow some counties to hold on to more of their own property taxes, Tabb said.
Peggy Miller, personnel director for Morgan County schools and a former state legislator, said a locally based pay increase could really help her retain teachers in an area that is an easy commute to Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
But she said she thinks the concept of locality pay could be a hard sell in the capital of one of the nation's poorest states, where people have difficulty grappling with problems tied to prosperity.
"We're such an appendage to West Virginia," she said. "It's hard for the people in Charleston to visualize what it's like over here."
Judy Hale, president of the American Federation of Teachers in West Virginia, a teachers union based in Charleston, said that the problem of pay disparities should be considered statewide and that solutions should not focus on just one area. She said that in McDowell County at the state's southern tip, for example -- where 2000 Census data show median household incomes of less than $17,000 a year -- some high schools have no upper-level science teachers.
The goal should be to get a qualified teacher in every classroom, she said.
But unless further legislation is passed, there probably will be many more recruiting fairs such as the ones Miller described, where tables from West Virginia get passed over for tables from other states that can offer higher salaries or hefty signing bonuses. She said starting pay in her district, which is one of the highest-paying in the state, is $27,464.
"It's almost embarrassing," Miller said. "Our salaries are so darn low, it's ridiculous."