Schools close as teachers rally against PEIA increases

BUCKHANNON — Higher pay is not the main reason Upshur County teachers took to the streets Wednesday evening, according to those participating in the rally.

Brian Allman, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School, says the most common misunderstanding about the statewide teachers’ walkout — school Thursday was canceled in all 55 counties — is that it’s all about brining home more bucks.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that we’re just doing this for [higher] pay,” Allman said during Wednesday evening’s rally in front of the Upshur County Courthouse. “It’s not about getting a pay raise. We fully understood what we were signing up for when we decided to become teachers; we do this because this is our passion and this is truly what we want to do with our lives. We know we make a difference in a lot of ways.”

Allman said teachers and other public employees are rallying against a pay cut due to Public Employees Insurance Agency changes that could result in higher monthly premiums for all state employees. In response to opposition to the changes, the PEIA Board on Tuesday voted to freeze premiums and benefits for the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

But that hasn’t satisfied many, like Allman, who say that’s only a temporary solution to a long-term problem.

“They want to freeze it for one year, but that’s not going to fix the problem down the road,” he said. “We’re looking at double-digit increases across the board later. It’s not just about teachers; it’s about all public employees and making sure they get what they deserve.” 

As chants of “We won’t go away!” and “Fund PEIA now!” echoed in the background, Allman said the walkout is also about retaining young teachers, who have the option of relocating to a border state to make “almost double” what he makes.

“And I have a master’s degree and 45 (credit hours),” Allman said. “I just think it’s important for people to be well-versed on the facts and to make sure that they understand what’s truly happening and how this affects the long-term education of their children — not only this generation of children, but generations of children for years to come.

“There’s a lot of stuff going through the state legislature now that we feel will adversely affect the future of our students, and I know, for me, that every decision that is being made and every action that we are taking is being done with our students’ best interests at heart.”

Brittany Barlett, a freshman and sophomore English teacher at Buckhannon-Upshur High School, said the situation surrounding teachers’ compensation is “disastrous” with the proposed premium hikes.

“In my opinion, we cancel school for disasters all the time, and the way we are being treated is disastrous,” Barlett said Wednesday, “so I feel that it’s important for students to see us standing up when we feel our rights are being violated, as we expect them to.”

Barlett noted that West Virginia teacher pay ranks 48th out of the 50 states, while the state legislature’s compensation puts them the top five nationally.

“Our legislators are third- to fifth-paid out of the entire country, so it’s a pretty big disparity,” she said.

Teachers and supportive community groups have also worked hard to ensure students are cared for while the schools are closed.

“We have taken so many steps to ensure our students are going to be OK over the next two days,” Barlett said. “We’ve had hundreds of people donating items to the high school. We have an overload of items to send food home with kids that need it. When you’re hurting educators, you’re hurting students, and we’re the ones trying to protect them, not the legislature at this point.”

Upshur County Schools superintendent Roy Wager attended Wednesday’s rally, which was organized by Upshur Indivisible-Votes. While he’s never in favor of school being canceled, Wager said he’s empathetic to public employees’ plight.

“I don’t like school being canceled,” Wager said. “We want the kids to be in school. But I understand why they’re doing this. [PEIA] affects everybody — administrators, not just teachers, but also state police, state workers.”

“We sent out the message tonight to all of the parents, and all of the staff already knows, [school will canceled] tomorrow and Friday, and we’re hoping to be back at school Monday,” Wager added.

The superintendent said Upshur, Barbor, Lewis and Randolph counties are coordinating throughout the work stoppage.

“We all unified and said, ‘You know, if one doesn’t have school, the [rest] aren’t going to have school,’” he said. “We’re all kind of connected anyway through Fred Eberle [Technical Center].”

According to Wager, West Virginia is short 700 teachers because border states offer educators “a heck of a lot more money.”

Wager also delivered a message of unity to Wednesday’s crowd of about 100 protesters.

“This isn’t just about teachers and service personnel; it affects all public employees,” Wager said. “We’re all in the same boat, so that’s why we support you. Go get ‘em!”

Assistant superintendent Jack Reger then addressed the crowd, telling participants they had full backing of the school system and administration.

“There’s no question that you deserve health care that’s affordable, and better pay, and you have our support, there’s no question about it,” Reger said.

Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday afternoon announced he had signed a bill earlier in the day that calls for a 2 percent raise for teachers effective July 1 and an additional 1 percent increase in both 2019 and 2020.

“We certainly recognize our teachers are underpaid and this is a step in the right direction,” Justice said in a statement after signing the bill.

Upshur County Education Association president and secondary special education coordinator Jan Craig said the West Virginia Education Association on Tuesday had called for a 5 percent increase in pay this year.

“That [2 percent] raise is not going to put us back to school,” Craig emphasized. “They’ve got to fix PEIA. They have to stop the attacks on public schools.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Wager told The Record Delta nothing out of the ordinary had transpired during the first day of the walkout. He also still expects Upshur County schools to reopen Monday.

“That’s what we’re planning on,” he said, adding that the school system will notify parents through Parent Link if there is a change. “It’s been quiet today, other than they were out there again today.”

Teachers and public employees rallied around Buckhannon again on Thursday, both in front of The Record Delta and Brake’s Dairy King as well as at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church. They then returned to the Upshur County Courthouse.

In Charleston, thousands of teachers from around the state packed the capitol to pressure lawmakers to fund PEIA.

State attorney general Patrick Morrisey issued a statement calling the walkout “unlawful.”

“Our office is prepared to support any relevant state agency or board with legal remedies they may choose to pursue to uphold the law,” Morrisey said in the statement.

No legal action had been filed regarding the school closures as of Thursday afternoon.

More In Local News