Local Teachers Continue Picket

Nancy Peyton of The Logan Banner reports teachers and service personnel were out across the county during the second day of the statewide walkout.

Schools in all 55 counties were closed Thursday and Friday, and union representatives announced Friday that teachers would walk out again on Monday. Each county’s superintendent will make the determination on whether or not to cancel school.

“It is clear that education employees are not satisfied with the inaction of legislative leadership or the governor to date,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, during a press conference Friday. “Education employees have not seen appropriate progress on issues vital to teachers, professional personnel and service personnel, and that is why they are still here. We continue to await legislative action to satisfy the needs of education employees so they may return to the schools and continue to provide quality education to the children of our state. Our members have spoken and the Legislature has not. As a result, the education employees are not prepared to go back to work yet.”

Gov. Jim Justice said Friday the work stoppage that teachers and school service personnel have been participating in for the past two days needs to stop.

“Our teachers need to go back to the classroom, period,” Justice said. “Our kids need to be able to be in school. We need to quit disrupting our families.”

The Legislature voted earlier this week for a pay increase that would provide teachers, service personnel and State Police an average 2 percent raise next fiscal year. The structure provides two additional years of average 1 percent raises for teachers and one more year for the other two employee classes.

Teachers, though, have said that amount is not enough to encourage beginning educators or to keep veteran classroom leaders in the profession.

The Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board, at the governor’s urging, froze the plan for the coming fiscal year – costing the state an estimated $29 million. But public employees have said that’s a short-term fix and that they would like guarantees of stability in the coming years.

The school system observed a complete shutdown for Thursday and Friday, and board president Paul Hardesty said this was to ensure no employees would be put in the position of having to cross a picket line. School was also cancelled in Logan County Feb. 2 as employees observed a one-day walkout and took to the Capitol.

Hardesty said during the board meeting Wednesday that while they have the bank time to make up the three days already missed, he is unsure of what actions can be taken on the board’s part if the walkouts continue. He also said he does not know what future actions will be taken by the attorney general’s office or the West Virginia Board of Education.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in a statement Feb. 21 that the teacher strike is illegal and he will take action, if requested, to enforce the law. This statement came the day before the 55-county two-day walkout.

“Let us make no mistake. The impending work stoppage is unlawful,” Morrisey said. “State law and court rulings give specific parties avenues to remedy such illegal conduct, including the option to seek an injunction to end an unlawful strike.”

Morrisey said he supports the efforts of teachers and service workers to advocate for better wages and health benefits, but added, “A work stoppage of any length on any ground is illegal Breaking the law does not set a good example for our children.”

There are 725 teacher vacancies in the state. Service personnel is also facing shortages, with Joe White, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, saying there are counties where there are no substitute bus drivers so drivers can’t take a day off.

As for PEIA, they want a long-term solution rather than a short-term fix.

“We want to look at long-term funding and we want an actual seat at the table, not wait until November when the (PEIA) finance board comes out and says, ‘Here’s the plan. What do you think?'” Lee said.

He mentioned forming a task force to look at solutions for PEIA, something both House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and Justice have also mentioned.

Boone County German teacher Debbie Null said the costs of PEIA combined with legislators working to give businesses a $140 million tax cut was the breaking point.

“It looks like they are giving all to business and nothing to all state employees – not just teachers,” Null said.

Along with pay and benefits, there are several bills teachers are concerned with, including legislation regarding seniority, pay deductions for union dues and charter schools. Carmichael said the seniority bill will not be taken up and other bills have not left committee, but Lee said at any time they could come back.

Justice said Friday he isn’t sure what else teachers want them to do.

“When is enough, enough?” Justice said. “I’m telling you when we should do more is when we know we can do more. Today we think we can do more, but we don’t know. Our teachers need to be in the classroom. The Legislature has spoken and I’ve signed it into law.”

Carmichael, who has taken a lot of heat from teachers, said what they can do is limited by the fiscal conditions of the state.

“We have a responsibility to the taxpayers of West Virginia to provide all we can to public employees but to manage the affairs of the state,” he said. “We are just beginning to crawl out of a four-year recession … To the extent of extra funds we have, it’s going to the teachers and public employees. But we have to try to do things that will change our state so we have more money, more jobs and more opportunity and we will be able to raise salaries even higher.”

Former governor and current U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin was at the Capitol on Friday and suggested a special session to address education concerns.

Justice said he does not think there would be enough time even in a special session to fix PEIA.

All three leaders – Justice, Carmichael and Armstead – have said they hear the teachers’ concerns, but American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia President Christine Campbell said if they hear, it’s time they start listening.

The Legislature will reconvene at 11 a.m. Monday.