Northern Panhandle Educators Say No Current Plans for Walkout

WHEELING — Teachers in some parts of West Virginia are walking out of their classrooms to protest a proposed 1 percent pay raise, but such sentiment isn’t yet being raised in the Northern Panhandle, according to local educators.

Officials in Hancock, Ohio, Marshall and Tyler county school districts all indicated this week that teachers in these counties have not served any notice of a potential walkout. Officials in Brooke and Wetzel counties did not immediately return calls for comment.

Technically, public employees in West Virginia cannot legally strike.

At issue is the 1 percent pay raise for teachers and all state employees proposed by Gov. Jim Justice, which many teachers feel just isn’t enough to retain top educators in West Virginia. At an average wage of about $40,000 a year, that amounts to about $400 annually for the teacher.

They are also concerned about the state cuts to the health insurance benefits they receive through the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

On Friday, schools in Logan, Mingo and Wyoming counties were closed because of teacher walkouts.

Also on Friday, the West Virginia Senate passed a measure that would provide teachers a 1 percent raise each of the next five years.

In Ohio County, the key work for teachers is “unity,” according to Elaine Sedilko, president of the Ohio County Education Association. Many of the teachers are wearing the color red to showing their solidarity.

“Walkouts are a last resort,” Sedilko said. “They are detrimental to the students. and it’s all about the students.”

The county’s teachers are instead discussing plans for informational pickets, and conducting a regional town hall meeting at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Wheeling Middle School.

The town hall forum comes just before Ohio County Board of Education members are set to meet at 6 p.m. in the board office to approve levy language for an expected $42.2 million bond issue to go before voters this spring.

“We want to get the parents support,” Sedilko said. “We also want our people to contact legislators. The legislators say they value education, and they need to prove it. And we have to say we’re serious.”

Sedilko said procedures for a teacher work stoppage would start with an authorization vote, and every public employee in each school building — including service personnel — would be given a secret ballot to ask if they want to do that.

“We have not come to that,” Sedilko said. “Some counties have done that, but we’re autonomous.”

She said union officials will have their regular monthly meeting with Superintendent Kim Miller, Assistant Superintendent Rick Jones and Human Resources Director Susan Nolte on Monday. It’s likely a discussion about a potential work stoppage by teachers will be discussed, according to Sedilko.

Marshall County Education Association President Matt Mandarino said union leaders aren’t talking about strike options with members at this point, but are instead urging them to take to their phones and computers and contact state officials.

He described the mood as “business as usual” among the teachers, and said “we haven’t had to take any labor action.”

“We met (this week), and didn’t even take a vote,” he said. “It was just an informational meeting, and the objective was to encourage members to call or email members of the Legislature.

“We are really looking at both salary and PEIA. We don’t feel the raise proposal is adequate, and we really want the Legislature to fully fund PEIA.”

Hancock County Superintendent Tim Woodward said he has not been made aware of any immediate plans for a walkout.

“I have not heard anything about this here coming forward,” he said. “I know they have some meetings planned for one day next week. I get a feel for what’s going on because I stay in pretty good contact with my reps. I know the feeling to strike is moving south to north in the state,” Woodward said.

Tyler County Schools Superintendent Robin Daquilante said teachers weren’t yet planning a strike there. “We have had a couple of meetings, and we’re trying to keep an open dialogue,” she said. “We’re trying to keep people informed.”