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Governor Jim Justice’s Words Not Well-Received by Teachers

Photo by Scott McCloskey West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice addresses area school personnel and members of the public during a town hall meeting Monday at Wheeling Park High School’s J.B. Chambers Performing Arts Center.

WHEELING — Ohio County public school teachers and service employees stood on the picket lines Monday with pursed lips and a universal “no comment” after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice told them “you need to be back in the classroom.”

They won’t be in the classroom today, though, as the statewide teacher strike enters its fourth day. Union leaders in Charleston announced Monday the strike would continue until the governor and House and Senate leaders addressed their concerns.

Following a morning town hall Monday in Wheeling in which the governor urged teachers to help him defeat a co-tenancy bill related to natural gas development that sits in the state Senate after passing through the House of Delegates, Justice promised teachers that if the bill fails, he would call for a special session to deal with the matter and another natural gas issue known as joint development. As part of that session, he said he would seek additional severance tax revenue from the natural gas companies drilling in West Virginia, and that money would help fund the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

In fact, John Marshall High School’s Susanne Cubick, pressed the governor to promise that he would do so, and also that he would form a task force to deal with PEIA that would include teachers and other West Virginians “and not just the gas companies.”

“If you want my promise, I’ll give it,” Justice said as he shook Cubick’s hand.

Many of the teachers couldn’t understand why the governor refused to fully commit to their cause by forcing the Legislature to fix PEIA and offer bigger pay raises. Justice said teachers shouldn’t expect anything else this session above the three-year, four-percent pay raise he signed last week, and that fixing PEIA would not be easy without a revenue stream.

Other teachers, such as Wheeling Park High School social studies teacher Rick Marsh, asked why revenue from the road bond or other sources couldn’t be given to the teachers.

Triadelphia Middle School sixth-grade student Gideon Titus-Glover stole the show Monday, though, when he got the microphone and gave Justice some business advice.

“If you’re putting money into public schools and making smart people, that’s a smart investment,” Titus-Glover said.

Justice told Glover he was a smart young man with good teachers.

Following the town hall, which saw several hundred teachers and service personnel show up to hear what the governor had to say, the mood among those on the picket line was gloomy. The town hall with the governor was tense at times, with Justice raising his voice on several occasions and teachers following suit.

“Be smart,” he told them. “I know you are smart. I know you are underpaid, and unappreciated in many ways.”

Justice said he had never been with a group that was “so beat down” and “unmotivated.”

“No matter how good a teacher you are … I don’t care how good you are … if you are not appreciated to the level you should be, your goodness is going to wane,” he said. “You’ll become mediocre.

“I apologize for the fact you’ve been forgotten for so long — but you’ve never been forgotten by me. ”

The governor had been scheduled to arrive at Wheeling Park at 8:30 a.m. Monday, but his speech didn’t begin until about 9:20 a.m. A number of the teachers started to leave the auditorium at about 10 a.m., though many stayed until Justice concluded at about 10:30 a.m.

Justice began by reminding the teachers of progress he has made on their behalf over the past year to modify standardized testing requirements in the state, and to appoint “really good people” to the West Virginia Board of Education.

He said he “deserved a pat on the back” for achievements in the state on behalf of education over the past year.

“I love you …,” Justice said to the teachers. “But I’m not happy with you. You should be appreciative of where you are …

“You need to be back in the classroom. The kids need to be back in the classroom.”

The teachers and public employee unions are pushing a measure to raise the severance tax by oil and gas producers in the state by 2.5 percent. They contend this money would raise enough revenue to increase the wages of public school workers.

But Justice cautioned that any attempt to increase severance taxes in the state fails in the Legislature, and he reminded them of his unsuccessful attempts to establish a tiered severance tax in West Virginia last year. His comments resulted in groans from the teachers.

Justice echoed his comments later Monday at town halls in Martinsburg and Morgantown.

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