BUCKHANNON—”Our Students First” was the statement that adorned the shirts of many Upshur County teachers, administration and service personnel on Tuesday in response to the statewide work stoppage and school closures opposing Senate Bill 451, dubbed the omnibus education bill.
Teachers believe the bill is retaliatory action for last year’s strike, and they feel if charter schools are approved in the fashion presented in the bill it will take funds away from already hurting public schools.
Additionally, teachers are concerned about the provision regarding home schooling which isn’t clearly defined nor regulated enough to be certain those students will receive a quality education.
Upshur County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Sara Stankus stated, “Our teachers want to be in the classroom and I know our families want their children back in the classroom, as do I.” Dr. Stankus added, “We are trying to be patient as we wait for the folks in Charleston to make decisions and we hope that those decisions reflect a value for what we are doing in public education because we cannot forget that we have to put children first and they have to be our top priority.”
According to the superintendent, each school district had previously taken a vote in anticipation of the necessity of another possible work stoppage. Union leaders felt that time had come to take a stand against SB451 on Monday evening and they already had the authority to act on behalf of school employees in Upshur County.
The Parish House quickly assumed the role of central food distribution center and worked diligently with the Upshur County Board of Education to ensure that food was delivered to every fire hall in the county by Tuesday evening. The collaborative effort was intended to lessen the impact school closures may have on basic needs being met for children and families. Chapel Hill Church also provided a safe place with optimal visibility for protestors of SB451 to convene in effort to gain support of the community.
Tanya Zickefoose, who is a School Counselor at Buckhannon Upshur Middle School and was also awarded WV School Counselor of the Year, explained that this strike is not just about teachers getting a pay raise; there are far more important issues at stake. She stated, “Upshur County teachers are willing to put aside pay raises for the betterment of our students.” Alternative School teacher and Upshur County Athletic Director, Debbie Shapiro added, “$2,100 isn’t worth sacrificing our students’ education.”
Heidi Keith, teacher at Buckhannon Upshur High School and WV High School Art Teacher of the Year urged the community to get the facts and stated, “There is so much packed into that bill that hurts public education, but it was masked with some good things trying to get us to push it through quickly.” Her sign in opposition of SB451 read, “Say NO! to SB451 and DIRTY POLITICS in WV!”
As events unfolded in Charleston Tuesday afternoon, and news trickled down to the local level, there was a great deal of uncertainty following the motion that passed to table SB451. B-UHS Social Studies teacher, Brent Kimble explained three possibilities for how things could now unfold. Essentially, at any point up until Sunday the Senate can go back in session with the ability to introduce new legislation, which could put something similar to what they have already tried to pass right back on the table. Another option they have is to break the bill up and address each item on its own merit, which would be optimal in his opinion. Finally, the House would reconsider the previous motion to table the bill and it could stand defeated. Kimble stated, “While everyone is celebratory and excited, I would describe myself as cautiously optimistic. The best thing people can do is stay informed.”
The general sentiment of school personnel on site at Chapel Hill remained guarded following Tuesday afternoon’s announcements. B-UHS teacher Robert Carr stated, “I do not trust Charleston to do the right thing at this point because last year they said come back to work, operate in good faith and we’ll fix things and they didn’t.” Keith added, “We’ve been down this road before and we’ll believe it when we see it.”