Teachers, State Employees Speak Out In Charleston
School teachers and public employees in West Virginia are planning a statewide work stoppage as they continue to express concerns about pay and projected hikes in health insurance.
An estimated crowd of between 10,000 to 15,000 people gathered outside the State Capitol Saturday – many of them members of the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association. Teachers, service personnel, and representatives from Wetzel and Tyler counties were among those.
Teachers and service personnel have been demonstrating in their respective counties for weeks, leading up to the large weekend protest in Charleston.
They are asking lawmakers to fully fund the Public Employees Insurance Agency and increase pay for themselves and other state public employees.
In order to secure long-term funding, PEIA Director Ted Cheatham has said that $50 million to $70 million would be needed each year to keep the program running. He said this is because of medical inflation.
According to literature handed out by the Wetzel County Education Association, premiums are now at risk for doubling.
The West Virginia House has voted to apply $29 million from the state’s rainy day fund to freeze insurance rates for teachers and state workers for the next fiscal year.
Besides the PEIA, teachers are also concerned about seniority elimination and pay-roll deduction elimination. The former, according to the WCEA, would allow districts to fire experienced teachers “to be replaced by cheaper, inexperienced teachers, so they can make their budget.”
As to pay, the House of Delegates has voted to give teachers 2 percent raises next year and 1 percent the next three years. The state Senate earlier approved 1 percent raises annually for five years.
The teacher unions cite that West Virginia ranks 48th in teacher pay in the United States.
Meanwhile, Ohio County School Service Personnel Association President Jerry Ames, also vice president of the WVSSPA, said the strikes on Thursday and Friday are called for all 55 county school districts in West Virginia.
The unions also plan to call for additional walkouts in specific counties the following week if legislative leadership fails to listen to the school employees’ protests, he said.
“It would be a rolling walk-out, with a couple of counties each day going out and sending people to Charleston,” he said.
Despite heavy rains and flooding, Wetzel County Schools personnel braved the elements and held informational pickets on Feb. 16, outside of the county’s schools.
School for Feb. 16 had been closed on the morning of Feb. 15, due to an impending work stoppage. Superintendent Ed Toman had confirmed the details on Feb. 15, stating he had been notified of the stoppage by Sandi Hurst. Hurst, who represents Wetzel County’s West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, had informed Toman that the association was walking out on Friday, Feb. 16.
Toman said there would not be enough drivers, cooks, aids, and secretaries available at the schools on Feb. 16. Therefore, the schools closed.
Though the Feb. 16 closure was due to an impending service personnel work stoppage, Wetzel County teachers and personnel have been holding informational pickets throughout the past couple of weeks, at each of the county’s schools. Elliot Kendle, of the Wetzel County Education Association, has noted that the informational pickets and walk-ins that are taking place throughout Wetzel County are demonstrations “of our solidarity with and support of teachers, education service personnel, and other public employees throughout West Virginia. These protests are a response to the actions of the Governor and the Legislature. We are united in our struggle to fix PEIA, obtain a competitive salary, and stop the attacks on employee rights.”
Both Wetzel and Tyler Board of Educations have passed resolutions to support their teachers and service personnel. Wetzel County Board of Education passed a resolution Feb. 19, while Tyler County Board of Education passed a resolution Feb. 12. Due to press deadlines, the Wetzel Chronicle will have more on the Feb. 19 resolution on its website at www.wetzelchronicle.com and in next week’s Feb. 28 Chronicle.
The Feb. 12 Tyler BOE resolution states that the board “fully supports a legislated wage increase for all Tyler County Schools staff AND the passage of legislation to fully fund PEIA (Public Employees Insurance Agency) and/or allow Tyler County Schools to pursue an independent health care option.”
The board states it “recognizes the teaching and service staff “DESERVE a competitive wage and the assurance of a functioning, reasonably priced health care system for themselves and their families.”
The Tyler County Board of Education’s resolution also encourages members of the community to join the board in “personally expressing appreciation to our staff for their dedication and devotion to their work through support of legislation leading to a wage increase and insurance funding.”
Meanwhile, the The West Virginia School Board Association has adopted a resolution supporting the state’s teachers and service personnel. Notably, this resolution was drafted by Wetzel County Board of Education President Warren Grace and Wetzel County Board of Education member Amy Cooley.
Cooley said during the Winter Conference of the WVSBA, Grace requested the association show its support of teachers and service personnel.
Cooley said the resolution was adopted on Feb. 17 and will be submitted.
The resolution states that the WV State Legislature has the constitutional mandate to adequately fund public education, but teachers haven’t received a legislatively passed pay increase for six years.
A proposed increase in employee contributions to state insurance (PEIA) “will place an additional financial burden on all current and retired educators.”
Furthermore, the says WV is losing highly qualified personnel to surrounding states “due to the fact that our teachers and service personnel rank 48th in terms of median teacher and personnel salaries.”
“Public education is the widely acknowledged backbone of any civilized society,” the resolution states.
Meanwhile, the WVSBA represents all 55 county boards of educations, and through the resolution, the WVSBA urges immediate passage of legislation addressing “these critically important issues.”
The Wheeling Intelligencer contributed to this article.