Schools closed again as teachers continue to seek higher pay, PEIA fix

BUCKHANNON — Upshur County Schools are closed today, for the third day in a row, as part of a statewide work stoppage.

Three state unions — West Virginia Education Association, American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association — called for the statewide work stoppage to continue Monday at a press conference on Friday.

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Dr. Steven Paine met with county superintendents Saturday in a conference call and issued a brief statement.

“Today I met with all county superintendents regarding the planned work stoppage for next week,” the statement reads. “Many asked whether the state was planning to pursue legal action in this matter. A decision will be made [today] if an agenda item will be added to the State Board of Education meeting scheduled for Tuesday to discuss legal action. If an item is added and the agenda is amended, the public will be notified [today].”

Upshur County Schools Superintendent Roy Wager said the gist of the meeting was that Paine would try to get on the agenda for the Tuesday meeting to decide if the state is going to take any legal action.

Wager said he was “not really” surprised that the work stoppage is going into a third day.

“They weren’t getting much movement from the legislature, so that is why they continued,” he said.

Wager said he may also learn more information Tuesday about when and if the days missed will be made up.

“We are supposed to get a decision from the state board as to whether they are going to make up those days,” he said. “There is some talk that maybe they would have to be made up. We don’t know anything for sure. We may know more Tuesday and we may not.”

On Friday, public employees continued to rally on the sidewalks in front of Brake’s Dairy Queen and Chapel Hill United Methodist Church. In the late afternoon, the rally moved to the Upshur County Courthouse. Horns honked and public employees held signs pointing to issues that needed addressed like PEIA. Local educators were also joined by others who came to support their efforts.

Mike Higham said he was there to show his support with Upshur Indivisible-Votes and also said he has a niece and best friend who are teachers.

“I’m hearing that teachers pay and benefits are 48th in the nation, while our legislators are in the top 10,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair. You can give them a raise, but it doesn’t begin to offset the increase in their health insurance premiums. If people don’t begin to fight back, they will just roll over us.”

Bill Groggs, past president of the Upshur County School Service Personnel Association, said what is happening now has been building up for the last 35 years.

“The legislature gave all school employees free insurance in the place of a pay raise with the understanding that it was going to be funded and would always be taken care of,” he said. “I can’t say that it was always going to be free, but it would be always be taken care of.

“Over the last 25 years or more, they have slowly eroded that benefit away. In essence, they gave us a pay raise, and then they took it away. My thought is, what business or organization ever gave their employees a pay raise and then took it back?”

Fixing PEIA permanently, not just a one-year freeze, is the biggest priority for service personnel, according to Groggs.

“There are some issues about possibly taking away seniority and there has been a bill introduced that would eliminate being able to have union or association dues deducted from paychecks,” he said. “I think we all want a raise. We all would like to have more money, but if you take care of the insurance and fix it the way it needs to be fixed, that in essence would be a pay raise for everybody.”

When the freeze is lifted next year, Groggs said his insurance premiums will double, his out-of-pocket costs will almost double and his deductible will go up.

“It’s a huge increase with nothing to offset it,” he said. “That pay raise they have given us, it doesn’t really mean anything.”

Last week, Governor Jim Justice signed a bill for a pay raise of 2 percent the first year and
1 percent in the next two years.

Groggs said he doesn’t know how long a work stoppage could go on, but he said it could continue until the public employees are assured that something will be done.

“It’s probably going to go on until we get some kind of concrete assurance that things are going to be taken care of,” he said. “I think the legislature is listening. Some members of the legislature are hearing what we are saying. I think the leadership is not hearing what we are saying.”

Sherry Holley teaches math at Buckhannon-Upshur High School. She also said a permanent fix for PEIA is the main issue.

“For the 200,000 of us that have PEIA insurance, we can’t afford it not to be fixed,” she said.

Holley also said she is concerned about the potential loss of seniority for the teachers as a secondary concern.

“Third, for me, is the pay,” she said. “I think the legislators are hearing, but I don’t think they are listening. If they had been listening, we would have had something done by now.”

Holley also said she isn’t sure how long the work stoppage will continue.

“I will stand with my fellow teachers in whatever they decide,” she said. “If it weren’t for the ones who stood up for us in 1990, when I was in college, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

That work stoppage lasted 11 days — including eight school days — although Upshur did not participate.

This year’s work stoppage has seen all 55 counties unite with thousands of employees going to the state capitol and rallying in their hometowns.

In Upshur County, Holley said, “It’s just been awesome to know that we have the majority of our community supporting us. Even though it’s not raining tonight, standing out here in the rain and cold, especially last Friday night, who wants to do that? But we know it’s in the best interest not only for us and other state workers, but for our kids.”

There are more than 700 educator vacancies in West Virginia right now, and Holley said more qualified teachers are needed. The state ranks 48th in teacher pay.

In response to parents who are questioning why their children should have to make up days because their teachers were not in the classroom, Holley said she hears those concerns too.

“Have patience with us and call your legislators,” she said. “We do thank the parents who are out here supporting us, bringing us food, honking and everything.”

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