By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
The teachers’ work stoppage continues in all 55 counties in West Virginia at the time this article is being prepared to meet its printing deadline. Dale Lee, President of the State Education Association, said in a press conference that despite what teachers and service personnel have been offered, they remain resolute that they are not ready to return to their classrooms.
When asked how long this would last, Lee said that discussions need to begin again and the strike would continue until resolutions that are acceptable to educators are offered.
According to figures provided by the WV Department of Education, there are 680 public schools in the Mountain State, employing nearly 20,000 classroom teachers. Enrollment in the public school system is a little more than 277,000 students.
Monday was the third consecutive school day that students had remained out of school, causing issues for many parents who work and do not have access to family nearby to assist with babysitting. Despite this problem, the teachers are being supported by parents and the public who seem to echo educators’ complaints regarding low wages and unfair hikes in the health care plan for public employees.
Many students in West Virginia schools are eligible for supplemental meals so with schools closed, state food banks and volunteer organizations have tried to help with this. Many churches and day care centers have also offered to help families experiencing child care issues that have developed due to the school work stoppage.
Speaker of the House Tim Armstead noted that Democrat legislators have been critical of the pace in reaching solutions. “However,” he stated, “when they have a chance to advance a substantive bill that will provide such a long-term solution, they refuse to work in a bipartisan manner to adopt these solutions in a timely fashion.”
At Governor Justice’s request, the PEIA Finance Board voted to freeze the health insurance plan’s premiums and benefits at current levels for the upcoming 2018-19 plan year, avoiding proposed steep premium increases for insurees with family or employee and spouse plans. However, the freeze would require the Legislature to come up with an extra $29 million of funding for PEIA. The House passed legislation to raid the state’s Rainy Day emergency reserve funds to fund PEIA, a proposal that is not supported by Senate leaders.
Ted Cheatham, PEIA executive director, defended the plan’s increase, saying, “How many companies do you know that don’t have a change in benefits from year to year? But we have agreed to freeze the benefits and premiums for one year beginning in July of this year.”
Educators are seeking a more permanent funding fix so that these issues will not have to be addressed on a routine basis.
WV Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said the teacher strike is illegal and does not set a good example for the children in the school system. He added that, if requested, he will enforce the law.
“State law and court rulings give specific parties avenues to remedy such illegal conduct, including the option to seek an injunction to end an unlawful strike,” Morrisey stated. “Our office is prepared to support any relevant state agency or board with legal remedies they may choose to pursue to uphold the law. We also stand ready to assist and support any county board of education or county superintendent to enforce the law.”
However, BOEs and County Superintendents statewide seem to be standing in support of their employees’ dissatisfaction with legislative action. And by so doing, they are not likely to be the ones seeking an injunction against their teachers and supportive school staff!
Educators are ignoring threats that their strike is illegal … just as legislators seem to be ignoring the seriousness of educators’ protests! When and how it will end remains to be seen, but in the meantime, WV teachers’ protests have captured the attention of news media with footage of hundreds of employees descending on the State Capitol last week aired on CNN. Reports on the school work stoppage in West Virginia continue to be updated in The New York Times as well. Teachers, professional and service personnel still await the attention of their state leaders, however.
One teacher commented, “It is fine that they all seem to recognize and admit that we are underpaid and under-appreciated, and they sympathize with our PEIA increases. But that is all rhetoric. We are seeking action; we are tired of talk!”