Teacher Strike Set in West Virginia
Area Public Schools Will Close During Walkout
WHEELING — Ohio County Schools officials continue to prepare for a planned two-day teacher walkout set for Thursday and Friday, while teachers and school service employees are strategizing for additional rolling walkouts in some counties starting Monday if the West Virginia Legislature fails to address their demands for lower health care premiums and higher pay.
Superintendent Kim Miller told board of educations members called for a special meeting this morning the district plans to resume its regular schedule on Monday. Members Sarah Koegler, Shane Mallett, Christine Carder and Tim Birch were present, while board president Zach Abraham participated by phone.
“Student safety is number one,” Miller said. “We are asking people not planning to work Monday to use the call-out system so that we can continually monitor who is planning to come to work, and who is not.
“We will cancel school if that is in the best interest of the students. At no time do we want students standing at a bus stop with no bus driver coming, or have children go to Wheeling Park HIgh School without adequate supervision. We have to err on the side of safety.”
Miller said she and other administrators understand walkouts or strikes by public workers are illegal under West Virginia law.
“An injunction may occur in the near future that will force me to force employees to come to work,” she said. “I’m not sure exactly where that will go, but I’m told it will happen.”
Miller described the teachers thus far as “being respectful,” and said administrators will continue to work with them and support their efforts as they recognize teachers’ wages across West Virginia rank 48th among the 50 states.
Elaine Sedilko, president of the Ohio County Education Association; Mark Fetty, president of the Ohio County American Federation of Teacher; and Jerry Ames, president of the Ohio County School Service Personnel Association and vice president of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, each spoke during the meeting.
Sedilko told the board rolling walkouts of teachers in specific counties each day could be planned in the following weeks if the Legislature fails to address issues raised by the school employees.
“I will get with you, and we can decide what would be a good day (for an additional teacher walkout),” Sedilko told Miller.
Ames said the idea of rolling walkouts is a practical one to avoid legal ramifications.
“The reason is Mr. Morrisey (West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey) cannot get a full statewide injunction if he doesn’t know which counties are going to be out,” he said. “We won’t get that until late each day for tomorrow. I wish I could tell you there was a schedule …”
Ames said superintendents across the state have asked the workers to at least call to say they wouldn’t be in, so they will know whether they will have the employees to have school that day.
“Personally, I’m open that we can get something done this week,” he said. “They have these ideas, but I don’t see any dollars with these ideas.”
Fetty said the purpose of rolling walkouts is to make the process “less disruptive” than a statewide walkout
“Those days are added on (to each county’s school calendar),” he said. “This way, we’ll only be adding a few days on here and there.
“Locally, my big concern is for the kids. I understand there are some community efforts underway.”
School officials indicated they are working with local soup kitchens and churches to provide meals to students who won’t get their breakfast and lunch at school. There are also concerns about child care for parents who may be forced to stay home or leave children unattended.
A list of lunch sites and places where children can be placed for the day in Ohio County will be released later today, Miller said.
One-time school events, such as the state wrestling tournament set for this weekend in Huntington, will go on as planned, but bus transportation will not be provided. School events that can be rescheduled will be moved to another time, she said.
Looking to avert a teacher walkout this week, the state Legislature approved SB267 Tuesday night, which would increase salaries for teachers, school service personnel and other state employees.
The measure passed the House of Delegates by a 84-12 margin with four delegates not casting votes. The bill proposed a three-year series of raises, 2 percent in the the first year followed by two 1 percent raises.
House of Delegates and Senate leaders called for teachers to accept the proposal, which would amount to a three-year, 4 percent raise, as opposed to 5 percent overall raises advanced by the House of Delegates on Feb. 13 in a plan initially backed by the Senate, and called on them not to stage a statewide walkout beginning Thursday.
The measure passed the Senate 27-6 Tuesday evening and was sent back to the House, which passed the bill at 8:53 p.m., sending the plan to Gov. Jim Justice to sign.
In a statement Tuesday, Justice urged teachers, school service personnel and other state employees to accept the pay plan. The bill would be effective July 1.
However, a teachers’ representative said teachers are still standing fast at asking for a 5 percent salary increase the first year, raising the likelihood state teachers will go through with a planned work stoppage Thursday and Friday. Teachers previously said prior 1- and 2-percent hikes were not enough.
Meanwhile, public schools throughout West Virginia will be closed Thursday and Friday if teachers and service personnel conduct a work stoppage, Miller said Tuesday.
Speaking to the Rotary Club of Wheeling, Miller said, “Thursday and Friday, we will close the entire state to support the teachers and personnel.”
She said school superintendents from all over the state met in Charleston on Monday and decided school closures will occur unless a work stoppage is averted through action in the Legislature.
“There is a possibility of a work stoppage. They (teachers) have been told it is illegal to strike,” she said, adding that officials anticipate teachers will be “picketing and fighting for higher wages and benefits.”
Alyssa Keedy, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said, “On Saturday, West Virginia education and service personnel organizations announced a statewide work stoppage for this Thursday and Friday. The West Virginia Department of Education has reiterated to county superintendents that any planning and decision-making in the event of a work stoppage is, at this juncture, a county-by-county decision.”
On Tuesday, Steven Paine, state superintendent of schools, said, “Work stoppages by public employees are not lawful in West Virginia and will have a negative impact on student instruction and classroom time,” he said. “Families will be forced to seek out alternative safe locations for their children, and our many students who depend on schools for daily nutrition will face an additional burden. I encourage our educators to advocate for the benefits they deserve, but to seek courses of action that have the least possible disruption for our students.”
Asked about teachers’ pay during a work stoppage, Miller said, “They are paid days, but they will be responsible for making those days up.”
Gabe Wells, communications coordinator for Ohio County Schools, said automated phone calls to students’ parents or guardians were scheduled to be made between 5-8 p.m. Tuesday.
The call-out message stated, “Negotiations among our Legislature, governor and the state leadership of employee organizations have continued throughout today. It is anticipated that these negotiations could continue for several days. If an agreement is not made by Wednesday at noon, Ohio County Schools will be closed on Thursday and Friday … It is important that you begin to make preparations for your family in case an agreement is not reached.”
The statement concluded, “Ohio County Schools values the support of our families, community and our staff. The Board of Education members and Ohio County Schools administration are working to minimize the disruption to our schools and community that a work stoppage could create. Be assured that the education and safety of our students is our #1 priority.”
Citing safety issues with regard to the planned teacher walkouts later this week, the Marshall Count Board of Education on Tuesday approved a recommendation by Superintendent Jeffrey Crook that the schools be ready to close on Thursday and Friday, unless a resolution is reached before noon today.
“The safety and security of our kids — which is our main priority — if we do not have teachers and staff in the classrooms, that is definitely a safety concern, so we want to make sure we don’t leave our kids in this environment because there’s not one there to supervise them,” Crook said.
The two days taken off from class, Crook said, would be added to the end of the calendar year and treated, effectively, as snow days. This would push the end of classes to June 2, after already having extended classes eight days due to weather and flooding over the winter.
Crook said students who utilize the free lunch program, as well as the county’s weekend lunch program, would be given extra days worth of food care packages to make up for the missing school days.
Also Crook said sports programs participating over the weekend on a regional or state level would not be affected, as a disruption could disqualify the student athletes from participating, as well as causing financial problems for investments already made.
Meanwhile, Hancock County Schools Superintendent Tim Woodward said Tuesday, if a solution is not found by 3 p.m. today, he will authorize a work stoppage, to be held Thursday and Friday, for county teachers and service personnel.
Brooke County Superintendent Toni Shute, announced her plans to close schools was, in part, a result of a work stoppage in the county last week, during which time 279 of the county’s personnel were not in school. She said it was felt it would not be a safe situation for students to still have school without the needed teachers and staff.
“The best thing to do is to cancel and err on the side of caution, and show our support,” Shute said. “Our hope is this is resolved swiftly and these actions bring the change that provides our staff and our students with the best outcome.”
Schools in Tyler County will be closed on Thursday and Friday with student safety the primary concern, Superintendent Robin Daquilante said. Not enough personnel will be around in the schools and not enough to transport them to and from class, she said.
No plans have been made if the work stoppage extends to next week, she said.
“We’re holding steady with what we’ve been told, that this is a two-day walkout,” Daquilante said.
Calls to the Wetzel County superintendent’s office were not returned as of late Tuesday night.
Linda Comins, Alan Olson, Jim McConville, Craig Howell, Jess Mancini and Wayne Towner contributed to this story.