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Teachers from southern counties flood Capitol in protest

Hundreds of teachers and other public employees from throughout West Virginia filled the Capitol Rotunda Friday morning to call on legislators to hear their concerns on wages and employee insurance programs.

All public schools in Mingo, Logan and Wyoming counties closed their doors Friday for the walkouts while their teachers flocked to Charleston, where they were joined by those from other counties whose schools were closed for weather.

“We’re pushing for our rights, because it has been so bad for teachers for so long, and they expect us to do more with less. We have been doing that, but they keep taking more and more,” said Tiffany Sargent, a third-grade teacher at Verdunville Elementary, in Logan County.

A news conference was scheduled at 10:30 a.m. Friday for Gov. Jim Justice to discuss public education issues, but it was canceled early in the morning, with no reason given, via a statement from the Governor’s Office.

Justice said on MetroNews’ Talkline radio show that “I just felt like, you know, that we were a little premature, you know, we need to get a few more details all lined out and, you know, just let maybe cooler heads prevail.”

He said he thinks a news conference will happen Monday.

“We’re going to clean this PEIA up, but I really believe steadfastly we should hold to the 1, 1, 1, 1, 1,” Justice told host Hoppy Kercheval, referring to the plan for five years of 1 percent raises. “And, the reason I say that is just simply this: Nobody will deny how much I am all in on education and if we can just barely see, and give ourselves the time to see that we’re really OK, and this isn’t just a false good feeling that we’re having right now.”

“I know wholeheartedly that the teachers need and deserve more dollars, I got that, you know, but if you overspend on things that you’re just gonna have from now on and you underspend on investment that is going to bring you in real dollars, mistake, big mistake,” Justice said.

He argued dollars invested in tourism could raise several times as much revenue in return, providing tens of millions to help teachers in the future.

“I thought that [canceling the news conference] was a bad — a terrible — way to handle this situation,” said Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo. “Come out here, look these people in the eye.”

Justice has proposed a 1 percent pay increase for public school teachers, totaling $404 annually. It would be followed by four more consecutive years of 1 percent increases. On Thursday, an amendment raising the initial year’s pay raise to 3 percent was shot down in the Senate, on a party line vote of 22-12.

The pay raise, if approved, could be coupled with changes to the Public Employees Insurance Agency that could raise premiums and deductibles for teachers and all other state employees.

Amelia Mullens, a biology teacher at Wyoming East High School, said, “This pay raise means a pay cut.”

Mullens said proposed PEIA changes would lead to her paying $313 per month for insurance.

“Do the math — you can say ‘raise’ all you want, but that’s not what this is,” Mullens said. “We are all going to be worse off.”

In recent days, Justice has expressed interest in loosening PEIA requirements and reducing premiums. There are public hearings scheduled in Morgantown, Charleston and Beckley over the next two weeks, but teachers at the Capitol on Friday were not impressed.

“It’s great that they are talking and discussing this, but they have nothing set in stone,” Sargent said. “We pay more attention — we care more about — what [legislators] do, and especially how they vote.”

Friday’s action came after teachers in Mingo, Logan and Wyoming voted to authorize a walkout. While the Southern counties are leading the movement in the Capitol, votes on similar movements are scheduled in several other counties in coming weeks.

“Everybody is at all different places with this, but teachers all over the state are supporting [the movement],” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.

In other counties, including Boone, Kanawha and Monongalia, teachers participated in “walk-ins,” where they rallied outside their schools before showing up to work. There are similar activities scheduled throughout this weekend and next week, as well.

“We’re here because we are the coalfields. We’ve been taught since we were little not to put up with this kind of treatment, and we won’t anymore,” said Angie Butcher, a special education teacher at Verdunville Elementary. “Since it’s moving region to region, I think they’re going to pay attention at different times. If legislators don’t listen, this will be a statewide movement. In a lot of ways, it already is.”

While Friday was just one day of action, several teachers and workers at the Capitol broached the topic of a potential strike if legislators don’t heed their messages.

“It feels like they don’t want to hear what we have to say,” said Mark Kennedy, a special education teacher at Man High School, in Logan County. “They may be looking at a strike down the line — they’ve made enough people mad. This may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

There has only been one teacher’s strike in West Virginia history, in 1990. It arose after negotiations for teacher salaries failed, leading to an 11-day strike with more than half the state’s public schools participating.

Today, things are a little different, but not in a good way for the state, according to Brittany Bauer, an AP biology and AP environmental science teacher at Wyoming East High School.

“Then, it was just teachers, and today it’s more than that — all public employees are rallying too, because of PEIA,” Bauer said.

Many bus drivers, custodial workers, cafeteria workers and other public employees joined the teachers at the Capitol on Friday, fighting for the same things.

“Yes, teachers are important, but so are we,” said Helen Browning, a bus coordinator for Logan County. “Schools wouldn’t function without us. Teachers know that; they’re fighting for us, too.”

Bauer and her colleagues have heard about the possible repercussions for teachers if a strike ever happened — firing, arrest and more — but said things have progressed so much, it doesn’t really matter anymore.

“It’s got to the point that it’s worth giving up everything,” Bauer said. “If they aren’t going to listen to us, we may have to.”

If things don’t improve, Sam Dobson, a band and theater teacher at Wyoming East High School and a Mercer County native, said he would consider leaving the state for work, as he has seen many friends and colleagues do since he started his career about five years ago.

“What’s my incentive to stay?” Dobson asked. “Why should I not go back to Mercer County and cross the state line into Virginia for work? I have friends that do that, and they’re doing better than me.”

And it’s not just the teachers that leave, Butcher said. She has seen children’s families send them across state lines to different schools, and fears that the proposed moves in the Legislature could amplify that.

“Everyone is leaving this state, and they are going to keep doing that. The legislators need to find a way to keep us here, not push us out,” Butcher said. “Who is going to be left to educate our future leaders? We want world-changers from West Virginia. This affects the next generations of our state, not just right now.”

Staff writer Ryan Quinn contributed to this story.

Caity Coyne is corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. She may be reached at caity.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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