Teachers Rally

BUCKHANNON — What did they want?

Fair pay. And when did they want it? Now.

Cold, steady rain couldn’t drown out the call-and-response style chants — “What do we want? Fair pay! When do we want it? Now!” was just one among many — that echoed across Main Street from the Upshur County Courthouse plaza Friday afternoon. More than 100 teachers, school service personnel, public employees and their supporters gathered at a rally for state employees hosted by Upshur Indivisible-Votes. Carrying umbrellas, holding up signs and wearing red, they were there to protest pay raises they see as too meager, if not insulting, and increases in monthly Public Employees Insurance Agency health care premiums.

With signs reading, “United We Stand #FundPEIA,” “No justice now, no Justice election,” “PEIA or West Virginia teachers will be MIA” and “We Will Remember in November,” rally attendees said they wanted to send a clear message to state legislators that they won’t back down until their concerns are addressed.

Brent Kimble, who teaches contemporary studies, advanced placement psychology and U.S. history at Buckhannon-Upshur High School, said he was tired of waiting around for the legislature to take much-needed action.

“The fact is, as a 12-year teacher, I’ve watched as my pay has decreased, my premiums have increased and my coverage has decreased,” Kimble said. “Enough’s enough. Once the PEIA board made its decision in regards to the premium increases, I was looking at an $130 decrease per paycheck. That’s $2,600 a year to do the job that I love, and that’s crazy. No one should deal with that.”

Duane Stoeckle, head football coach at B-UHS, said that although he’s close to retirement age, he decided to weather the chilly rain to support his younger peers.

“I’ve been doing this for somewhere around 26 years now,” said Stoeckle, who teaches advanced placed government and civics. “I’ve had a lot of former students go by, some of the best and brightest we’ve had, and they’re out here teaching. I’m near retirement, but I’m here for them. They deserve it. You have no idea what teachers do every day in the classroom and how they affect people. One percent (pay raises) doesn’t do it. PEIA is not right, and they need to make it right. Fairness — that’s all we want is fairness.

“There’s a lot of great young people here that aren’t getting what they deserve from our state legislature, and they need to pick it up a little bit.”

In an attempt to urge the legislature to “pick it up,” Upshur County Education Association president and secondary special education coordinator Jan Craig says teachers and other public employees aren’t backing down.

“We need to show them that we don’t mean to back down,” Craig said, addressing the crowd. “This is going to be a fight. It’s going to be a fight for days, because they aren’t listening, so it’s ‘Remember in November.’ Those people that don’t back us, we don’t back.”

Following her public address, Craig said a pay cut — not a pay raise — is the main issue.

“This doesn’t have to do with a raise so much as a pay cut for most families,” she said. “They’re looking at a 2 percent raise, which would be $800, [but] some families’ insurance will go up by $6,000 a year. And while they’ve said they’re going to freeze PEIA, that hasn’t happened, and we’re just kicking the can down the road because we are not moving forward.”

The W.Va. House of Delegates passed a 2 percent raise this year, followed 1 percent increases. And in an attempt to quell anger about PEIA premium increases, Gov. Jim Justice has proposed freezing PEIA premiums for one year. The House wants to take the money for that plan — $29 million for one year — from the Rainy Day fund.

But Del. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, who stopped by the rally upon returning from Charleston Friday, doesn’t think a 2 percent raise is adequate.

Toting a sign with a picture of the “struggle bus” carrying teachers, school service personnel, public employees, state troopers and correctional officers, Hamilton said the legislature should fix PEIA now and stop “putting off” public employees.

“It’s important to fix PEIA and give public employees’ a larger raise, because we went through three years, and we didn’t have the money, and we kept putting them off and putting them off,” Hamilton said. “Before that, when we had the money, we would give token raises. It’s time we do the right thing, and we do a raise that they can see.”

Hamilton said the money is available, noting two other proposals championed by legislative leadership will cost the state $150 million per year, far more than teacher pay raises.

“I can’t answer for the people that are saying we can’t give more than 2 percent, mainly the governor and the Senate,” Hamilton said. “There’s money if we stayed away from the intermediate court … and then the inventory tax, if we stay away from that, because that inventory tax, if it passes, it’s going to cost us about $140 million. We’ve got to take care of our people before we go out trying to recruit new industries in this state. Let’s take care of the people we have here.”

Upshur Indivisible-Votes founder and leader Edwina Howard-Jack is also a B-UHS English teacher. She said appreciated Hamilton attending the rally.

“We appreciate Bill Hamilton supporting us, and we also recognize that [Del. Patrick] Martin and [Sen. Robert] Karnes are not,” Howard-Jack said. “And we will remember in November.”

Martin and Karnes both voted against amendments that would have increased the size of the raises for school employees, and neither elected official attended Friday’s rally. Hamilton supported the larger raises.

Howard-Jack said she was pleased with the turnout Friday, given the inclement weather — schools had been dismissed early due to flooding concerns. She was also excited the rally drew people of all political affiliations.

“We’ve been trying to reach across the aisle and find issues where we can come together, and I think this definitely is one of those issues, and that’s exciting,” she said. “I want to say thank you to everyone who came because it’s definitely inclement weather. I’m thrilled with the turnout. The more people we get, the better we’ll be. I’m hoping next week, we’ll see even more people, and I’m really encouraging more people to come and make their voices heard.”

Upshur Indivisible-Votes has scheduled a second rally at the courthouse plaza Wednesday from 4-6 p.m., the day before teachers across the state are set to begin a two-day walkout Thursday and Friday.

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