MADISON — As she was studying at Marshall University to be a teacher three years ago, Kelli Vance’s professors told her and her classmates that in the first few years of their careers, they would probably see a teachers’ strike.
“They said, ‘not sure when, but you guys are going to see a strike soon. It’s coming,’ ” said Vance, now in her second year as a teacher at Scott High School.
Still, she didn’t foresee teachers in all 55 counties walking out so soon in her career. It’s been a bit overwhelming, she said, but she knows what they’re doing is crucial to securing a future for other new teachers like her.
“These are issues we [teachers] have wanted to address for a while now. Especially with it being statewide action, it goes to show it’s a bigger deal to us than [legislators] thought,” Vance said.
She and other Boone teachers and school workers still showed up to their schools Thursday, but they stood outside with signs and waved as cars honked and drove by.
“Our Legislature does not care for the working people of West Virginia — they just don’t care,” said Heather Ritter, a librarian and facilitator for online Spanish classes at Scott High. “They care about their friends, their corporate buddies and everyone with money — but not us.”
The walkout, which will continue Friday, is the first statewide walkout by educators in West Virginia’s history. In 1990, teachers went on strike for 11 days after failed wage negotiations with the Legislature, but only in 47 of 55 counties.
“When we went to the Board of Education’s website last night and saw the entire state was red — that was amazing,” Ritter said. “They weren’t united in 1990, but we are today.”
School service workers are also standing with teachers this time around, since any changes to Public Employees Insurance Agency plans affect them, as well.
“We have to be unified in order to get what we want,” said Barbara Stowers, a cook at Madison Middle School. “It’s amazing — it’s like history being made and we’re a part of it, while fighting for what we need.”
Stowers said most of her concern centered on PEIA — “improve it, fix it and we’ll all be a little happier,” she said.
“If they fixed PEIA — that would be the raise we need right there,” said Scott Parsley, who has worked as a bus driver for Boone County schools for 20 years. “Every time they raise our pay, they raise our insurance. It’s been pay cut after pay cut because of that.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill giving both teachers and school service personnel a 2 percent pay raise. For service personnel, this will be followed by a 1 percent pay raise next year.
Parsley said he cared about the raise, of course, but it means nothing when it’s immediately drained out of their paychecks to cover insurance.
Earlier this week, the PEIA Finance Board unanimously voted to freeze PEIA for 2018-19, meaning previously approved changes that would have raised premiums and deductibles for all state employees will not go into effect. In the meantime, Justice said he will work with legislators and others to find a long-term funding solution to PEIA.
This freeze, though, left a $29 million hole in PEIA’s budget, which would be filled by transferring money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund. If this freeze continued into 2019-20, PEIA Executive Director Ted Cheatham said, the agency would have to cut benefits and raise premiums enough to make up $70 million — which could mean much higher rates for public employees.
Casey Harmon, another bus driver in Boone County, said that today — after taxes and insurance — he brings home $800 a month in pay. If the changes to PEIA that were proposed earlier this session weren’t placed on a hold, he said he would be bringing home $500 a month, starting in July. He can’t imagine — even if it’s years away — what more money out of his paycheck would mean as he tries to support his wife and two children.
“Justice, [Sen. Mitch] Carmichael and [Attorney General Patrick] Morrisey — they need to get their priorities straight, that’s for sure,” Ritter said. “If they don’t fix this, those 700-plus empty classrooms are going to turn into 1,000-plus by next year. Just wait and see.”
Ritter said she doesn’t see the work action and protesting ending any time soon, and will be out there — wherever she is needed — until things are fixed.
“The representation — our governor and legislators — will try to starve us out here, I have no doubt about that,” Ritter said. “but that’s OK, if that’s what it takes to get change, we’ll do it. They’re going to be disappointed.”
While school employees are at odds with state leaders, they are adamant about keeping community support on their side. Hopefully, Stowers said, they see the purpose of these demonstrations.
“We hope we can keep them with us, and that they understand this is for a good cause and it’s what we need to do,” Stowers said. “We love the children — all of us do, or we wouldn’t do these jobs in the first place. We love what we do, and we love our jobs. We just need a little bit more.”