Many West Virginia public school employees and their unions were organizing opposition Monday to the education overhaul bill that Senate Republicans are rushing through their chamber.
“We [in Mingo County] are in the first steps of a work stoppage,” said Brandon Wolford, a special education teacher at Lenore K-8 and president of Mingo’s arm of the West Virginia Education Association union.
Monday evening, in a voice vote with no nays heard, about 70 Mingo public school workers approved collecting votes in each county school Tuesday, among all employees, on whether to have a one-day walkout.
The bill would give raises to school workers and a yet-unclear amount of funding to school systems, among other benefits. It also would allow county boards of education to weaken longer-serving school workers’ job protection. It also could weaken unions and has provisions that make it harder to strike.
It also would transfer public money to charter schools (which could be run by unelected boards), secular and religious private schools and homeschooling; nix the requirement that counselors must spend at least 75 percent of their time actually counseling; and do much more.
“They’re ready to walk,” Wolford said of the school workers he’s heard from in his county. “They said, ‘we already did it once.’ Apparently, [Republicans] didn’t learn their lesson.”
Wolford said school employees, union or not, were invited to a 5:30 meeting Monday evening at Williamson pre-K-8’s cafeteria.
“Last year, I was a lot more energetic about it,” Wolford said of walking out. “And this year, I’m just disgusted. I still have the will, but I’m disgusted they didn’t learn anything from it that they still think we can be pushed around.”
Last year, Mingo was the first county to vote to have a countywide, single-day walkout. That first “Fed Up Friday,” which a couple of other Southern West Virginia counties joined in, grew into West Virginia’s first statewide public school workers strike.
“If we don’t stand against this now, then we’re not going to have anything to fight for next year,” Lorraine Davis, a Tug Valley High teacher, said during the meeting. “We have no choice but to fight against this.”
Delegate Nathan Brown, D-Mingo, spoke at the meeting, saying, “If you’re gonna move, you need to move quick.”
“There’s an old saying: Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face,” Brown said. “And I think you just need to come out swinging.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said in a news release Monday that “there is no question that our educational system needs critical reform, and it needs reform right now.”
After the Senate Education Committee revealed the bill Thursday and passed it Friday, the Senate formed a Committee of the Whole, to review the bill. That circumvented the Senate Finance Committee, where Republicans likely lacked the votes to advance it.
State Board of Education President David Perry on Monday criticized the bill, speaking for himself only in a news release. He said he had “tremendous concerns about many items” in the bill.
“As a veteran of the public education system and for the sake of our public education students, I sincerely hope cooler and reasonable heads will prevail as this legislation is discussed over the next few weeks,” he wrote. “While changes to West Virginia’s public education system are most certainly needed, I personally believe that some of the proposals in the Senate Omnibus bill will not work to improve public education, but rather inflict great harm on our system, and possibly run afoul to the landmark Recht decision.
“Given the events that have transpired on the bill to date and because of the unprecedented, rapid pace and process this bill is following, I feel it is imperative the State Board of Education weigh in on this matter.”
On Monday, the leaders of the state’s three major school worker unions and the major organizations representing principals and school superintendents held a joint news conference opposing the bill.
Blaine Hess, vice president of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators, the superintendents’ group, said his group is strongly opposed.
“The measures contained in the bill should be approached on an individual basis,” said Hess, who also is the school superintendent in Jackson County, where Carmichael lives. “They should stand on their merits in separate bills and not the take-it-or-leave-it basis as designed by the authors.”
Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers union’s state arm, said the bill “defies logic.”
“Where is the public outcry for charter schools?” he asked. “Where is the public outcry to raise class sizes? Where is the public outcry to send our tax dollars to out-of-state profiteers?”
Republican leaders have expressed support for removing the bill’s provision to increase maximum class sizes from 28 to 31 students in grades one through six.
Mickey Blackwell, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals, asked, “Where were we when this bill was being constructed? We weren’t being consulted, we weren’t being called, we weren’t being notified.”
Regarding a strike, Albert said, “We’re not promoting any action of that magnitude at this point, but we are listening to our members.”
David Gladkosky, executive director of West Virginia Public Educators, said his group of about 1,150 wasn’t part of the news conference Friday because it has a “different philosophy.” He attended the event and told reporters afterward the group supports parts of the bill but doesn’t have enough info about the charter schools and education savings accounts (private- and homeschool vouchers).
Seven employees from Kanawha County’s Sissonville High, which has been closed since last Tuesday because of electrical problems, sat on the sidelines of the news conference. Six wore the red that filled the state Capitol during the strike.
Teacher Patricia Murphy said she cried through part of the Senate Education meeting Friday. She said children without strong homes or advocates “don’t have someone who’s going to fill out a 10-page application for a charter school.”
“I don’t even know where to begin, there’s so many bad things,” she said of the bill. “I do feel like it’s retaliatory; that’s a big issue.”
She said she thinks schools need more student-support professionals (which the bill would provide, a Senate Education lawyer has said), and counselors need more time for counseling (the bill could reduce that time).
Robin White, another Sissonville teacher, said lawmakers “couldn’t answer basic questions about the bill, so what does that say about their preparation?”
Emily Comer, a South Charleston High School Spanish teacher, is an administrator on an employee-organizing Facebook page that connected workers across unions and outside of them during last year’s strike.
“What I’m hearing from basically every teacher I talk to is this fight is more important than last year,” she said.
She said employees have learned about the bill, despite it being revealed Thursday and, even then, just in draft form.
“All eyes are on this,” Comer said. “I think that every teacher, every cook, you know, every janitor, every custodian in my school knows exactly what’s going on with this bill, knows the ins and outs, all the details. Teachers know the details of what’s going to happen with the counselors.”
She said there was shock at the bill, but then organizing quickly began.
“Talking to everybody in every school,” she said, “and we’ve been talking to everyone in the building, and I know teachers have been talking to parents about it and community members.
“We are in this because we care about public education,” Comer said. “A 5 percent raise, you think you’re going to buy me off with $2,000? This is about the future of not just our career but our career that we deeply care about because it is a public good for society.”