As the 2018 West Virginia Legislative session gets under way, a plethora of new and old bills that mostly detract from West Virginia Public Schools and the people who work for them are being debated and voted upon. In the current climate of deregulation, it seems that one industry the legislators want to put more strain on is education. Even the EPA and banks fall short of being of the most regulated, policy-laden sectors of the government compared to public education. The sheer amount of legislation and policy change directed toward education each legislative session is remarkable.
This year, frustration over our state government’s handling of the Public Employee Insurance Agency is growing, due to sky-rocketing costs, confusing changes to the program, the added Go 365 app (a Wellness program aimed at healthy living), and the lack of funding by state legislators. Huge spikes to PEIA premiums affect not only teachers but police, state workers, health care workers, state college employees, correctional officers etc. These positions keep our state functional on so many levels. In a state where many people of all ages are leaving, and even more are staying but struggling with unemployment, public sector employees seem to be the backbone of what is quickly becoming an emaciated economy. According to a 2015 article by USA today, 17 percent of West Virginians are employed by the state, making W.Va. number 10 on the list of states with the most government employees. This is in a state where only half the population is employed at all, which the article states is the lowest in the country.
Teachers and state workers have received a lot of press recently due to the PEIA cuts and Governor Justice’s proposed 1 percent pay increase. One group that has been overshadowed by these larger groups, however, is school service personnel. These workers are the life blood of the educational system, the unsung heroes of our classrooms. I am a special education teacher and I do not exaggerate when I say without the help of school service personnel, my job would be infinitely harder. According to Justice’s plan, their pay raise would only equate to roughly $200 a year, and with insurance premium increases that actually leaves them with a net loss.
So who are the school service personnel and what do they do? They are the schools’ office staff, classroom aides, custodians, transportation and maintenance workers, and lunch room staff. According to ballotpedia.org, as of 2013, there were 283,044 students enrolled in West Virginia Public Schools. In most cases, our school service personnel are the first people those students see as they start their day. Take our schoolbus drivers. They are up before dawn, sometimes in below-zero temperatures, warming up and cleaning the buses. Imagine how stressful it is driving a bus full of children safely on West Virginia backroads on a snowy January morning. How about our classroom aides, men and women who work primarily in special education classrooms, caring for children with mild to severe disabilities? Their jobs often entail changing diapers or feeding children, and sometimes enduring the physical challenges that disabilities often bring about. Classroom aides care for and nurture these children eight hours a day all the while not acting as a surrogate parent. There are the maintenance men and women, taxed with fixing problems on a shoe string budget, and cafeteria workers ensuring the all of these students get hot meals when sometimes they get no meals at home. Janitors have a thankless job of cleaning up after students in every way. I know I have had multiple pukers in my classroom this year alone.
There are times when I believe service personnel have some of the toughest jobs in the public sector. And they do it day in and day out without complaints and for very little respect or pay. They deserve much more than a $200 raise. With the 2018 elections approaching, West Virginia is in the midst of a great sea of change. Local grassroots candidates, teachers and service personnel alike are running for office for the first time. These candidates feel they are not being heard by current legislators and have decided to do something about it. It is time to support our service personnel by voting for candidates who support them. They have West Virginia’s most precious resource in their hands and we need to show appreciation for that.