Senators balk, teachers walk

State schools remain closed as teachers, legislators wary of ‘deal’

BUCKHANNON — The governor of West Virginia told them to go back to work. The state union representatives asked them to go back to work. State Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine said he “expected” them to be back to work. The attorney general said he would sue to force them back to work.

But with uncertainty swirling around a proposed pay raise bill and no permanent fix for PEIA in sight, school employees in all 55 counties once again united to shut down schools and demand action in Charleston.

The decision came amidst a whirlwind week in Charleston. Governor Jim Justice announced a deal Tuesday evening that would give teachers a 5 percent pay raise this year, as well as create a task force to study PEIA.

But many teachers — who have said establishing a permanent funding stream for health insurance is their top priority — were unhappy with the agreement. Justice proposed funding the raises by increasing tax revenue forecasts for next year.

Meanwhile, the House of Delegates quickly took up the pay raise bill Wednesday — what Justice called a ‘cooling off’ day — and passed it 98-1.

The State Senate, however, adjourned for the evening. On Thursday, the full senate refused to take up the bill, instead referring it to the finance committee, which was not scheduled to meet until today.

With the unfolding situation in Charleston serving as a backdrop, Mingo was the first county to announce school would be closed Thursday, making the call shortly before 3 p.m. Nearly eight hours later, the final county — Jefferson — would also close school due to the work stoppage. All 55 counties were closed for a sixth day.

“I wasn’t going to have enough employees,” Upshur County superintendent Roy Wager said Thursday morning. “I went to [a school employees] meeting at the high school at 2:30 p.m. [Wednesday] and just listened, and then I started hearing from other counties. A lot of things have been settled. They want to know that the Senate is actually going to do something. The House has already passed it, but they don’t want to go back and find that the Senate voted it down.”

Despite a steady rain, public employees were back to rallying with extended hours along Route 20 across from Buckhannon Crossroads and in front of Chapel Hill United Methodist Church before coming together at the Upshur County Courthouse later in the evening.

Teacher Scott Currence said he learned to fight for things like health insurance and decent pay from his dad, a coal miner.

“My dad was a coal miner,” Currence said while standing in the rain Thursday. “They fought for everything they got. He still has health insurance to this day, and he is 70. I think that’s in our blood.”

According to Currence, he wasn’t rallying just for teachers, but all public employees.

“The reason I am out here today is, one, they canceled school so I wanted to come out and support my other state employees. The second reason is we don’t have concrete proof yet that this pay raise that was promised a couple days ago is going to be coming through.”

“The pay raise wasn’t really a concern to me,” he added. “When it comes down to it, it’s 97 cents an hour for teachers, and for service personnel, it’s half of that. And that still hasn’t went anywhere. The House passed it but the Senate has it today. I think that’s why a lot of people canceled school.”

Nearby, Christine Flanagan, a first-grade teacher at Buckhannon Academy, was ready to rally in the rain with a poncho.

“We need a permanent fix for PEIA insurance and an equal raise for all state employees,” she said. “It wasn’t enough. It was just to pacify us to get us back to work and back down. We weren’t ready, so here we are.”

Jan Craig, president of Upshur County Education Association, said, “We were asked by our union representatives to trust in the deal that had been made and to return to the classrooms. Mr. Wager and I decided jointly yesterday that we needed a meeting to explain what all it was. We had a meeting at 2:30 p.m. yesterday that lasted about an hour and a half.”

At that meeting, Craig went over the deal with the governor, which included not just a pay raise but also assurances that other bills which had been a concern — such as charter schools, seniority changes and union dues restrictions — would not be acted upon.

“[On Wednesday], Gov. Justice released the makeup of the PEIA task force, and it will begin immediately following this session with union representation and a wide array of people at the table,” Craig said.

But Craig said school employees raised concerns about the agreement at the meeting.

“They were concerned that it would not go through in Charleston,” Craig said. “That is in part because of Senate President Mitch Carmichael’s comments.”

Jeffrey Webb, Upshur County’s American Federation of Teachers president, who was just elected two weeks ago, said mistrust of the legislature and the lack of a PEIA fix were a few of the concerns that led to the school cancellations in spite of the unions’ desire to return to the classroom.

“From what I gather, everybody in the state wants to remain as united as possible,” Webb said. “Yesterday afternoon when several of the southern counties started announcing they were closing, we were in the midst of a county meeting. Several employees voiced they wanted to stay unified in solidarity. I get the sense of the teachers and personnel in Upshur County that they want to see a deal more finalized, a bit more final, beyond just a handshake.

“Some of them are still very upset that there wasn’t really a true fix for PEIA except for the task force.”

In response to parents expressing concern about having to make up days in June, Webb said school employees are fighting for a better future for education in West Virginia.

“In the long run, the changes and the achievements are going to be what is best for education here in West Virginia,” he said. “It will make the state more attractive and boost teacher morale. We will be getting the best teachers possible.

“I understand parents saying they don’t want their children to make up the days, but education shouldn’t be seen as a punishment.”

Webb asked that concerned parents learn more about the issues behind the strike.

“Understand that we believe what we are doing is ultimately the best for the education in our state,” he said.

Since the work stoppage began, many community members and parents have expressed their support, he added.

“When I am standing out on the sidewalk, or talking to people, the sense I get is we have more support than not. For the most part, the Buckhannon community — from people driving by, to churches, students and others  providing food — have all been very supportive.”

Wager said at Tuesday’s board of education meeting that no guidance had been given yet on how days should be made up, but he hoped to have an answer by the next board meeting on March 12.

Upshur County school employees collected more food on Thursday to share with the Upshur Parish House.

Food was collected at both rallying points — at Chapel Hill UMC and in front of Brake’s Dairy King — and Webb said he anticipated they would do that on Friday as well.

Craig noted that backpacks were sent home with students with extra food before the work stoppage began and said the Parish House is providing a lunch each day for students and their families.

“The UCEA is going to donate about $75 to $100 to make sure they have food,” she said. “And teachers on the line are donating. That can still be used at the Parish House to help them meet the needs of the community.”

Wager also said that child nutrition director Cindy Nesselrode was working to make sure the food in the schools was not going to waste but would be distributed.

On Thursday, the Parish House announced that they would offer bag dinners in conjunction with Upshur County Schools at several locations that evening.

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