West Virginia Teachers Nearing Their Breaking Point

Brooke County teachers Sara Roark, left, and Celesta Byard display signs along W.Va. 2 during an informational picket in Follansbee Monday afternoon. Photo by Scott McCloskey

From Staff Reports

WHEELING –Ahead of a possible strike, about 30 West Virginia teachers gathered outside a business owned by state Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, Monday afternoon to voice concerns over what they consider low pay and out of control health care costs.

Meanwhile, more than 60 Brooke County teachers formed picket lines along both sides of W.Va. 2 in front of Follansbee Middle School to express opposition to rising Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) premiums, while adding they do not believe the pay increases proposed in the Legislature are adequate for their efforts.

“We haven’t seen a pay raise in many years as teachers and service personnel and state employees,” Ron Ujcich, president of the Brooke County American Federation of Teachers, said. “If we do get a pay raise, they take it right back off of our insurance.”

On Monday, the House of Delegates rejected a 3 percent pay raise for school personnel, and instead opted to advance for a floor vote a 2 percent increase next year followed by 1 percent raises in each of the next three years. Teachers also would receive 1.5 percent annual step increases.

“These folks need to see serious commitments. Our folks are angry,” Christine Campbell, president of the statewide American Federation of Teachers, said.

The house vote came after many county representatives around the state on Sunday overwhelmingly authorized union leaders to take action in response to concerns over both wages and health insurance benefits, including a potential strike.

Sunday’s vote by public school employees allows the AFT and the West Virginia Education Association to choose action that includes what would be the first statewide teachers strike in almost 30 years.

Gregory Merritt, president of the American Federation of Teachers of Wood County, said teachers’ authorization of a strike does not mean one will occur immediately, but there probably will be other action at some point. He feels certain the House bill was “an effort to make some sort of good step toward appeasing the employees in the state, but it’s still far from what we deserve.

“It is just almost laughable to think of how little amount of money that is,” Merritt said of the proposed increases.

Merritt said he would like to see a 3 percent or 4 percent increase for each of the next five years.

“We want legislators to support us,” he said. “We want to feel like the elected officials believe we are important to the economic future of our state.

“We want to attract business, and part of what attracts business is for people to be certain their children will get a good education,” Merritt added.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said Monday public school employees want to see action toward a long-term insurance fix, addressing lagging pay and ending attacks on their seniority system and union representation.

“So much of the unrest around the state, although salary and insurance are a big part of it … people are worried about the future of our state economically,” he said. “We want to see our students succeed, have qualified teachers who care about them. There are so many vacancies across the state.”

Meanwhile, in Benwood, protesters gathered outside the Ryan Ferns HealthPlex to express their displeasure. Signs stating, “Ryan Ferns, we see how you vote, now watch how we vote,” and “Ryan Ferns, why should we support you, if you don’t support us?”

Ferns has stated he sympathizes with the teachers and that the Legislature has already made efforts to address several problems.

Multiple teachers at the rally also said the removal of the seniority system is, “unfair and unjust,” being that their time spent as an educators would not be relevant when hiring after a layoff within the school district.

In Follansbee, one Brooke County teacher displayed a sign stating, “Broke teachers, bearly making it,” as a play on the Brooke High School mascot, the Bruin.

“What they (public) don’t understand is the issue about our insurance being raised and how much we actually make. We only get paid for the time we’re in school. We don’t get paid for the summers. … So we are just out here as a group standing up for all service personnel, all state employees, to just try and make everybody aware,” Brooke High School teacher Emily Beall said.

Cynthia Arthers, a kindergarten teacher at Wellsburg Primary School who also turned out for Monday’s protest said dozens of teachers participated in a pickett in Wellsburg on Sunday as well.

“We are just here for our health insurance. We just want them to fix PEIA. We want to make sure seniority matters and we want them to know we are worth more than 1 percent,” she said.

“We work hard. We love our kids and we love our jobs and we just want a little bit of respect with that, too,” Arthers said.