Teacher Strike Continues as Unions Wary of Late Reversal by House of Delegates

Photo by Scott McCloskey

WHEELING — While teachers statewide are maintaining their strike to ensure Senate Bill 451 stays dead, weather — at least locally — may have made such a gesture unnecessary.

All Northern Panhandle school district canceled class for today after Tuesday’s announcement the strike would continue.

But Ohio County Schools Assistant Superintendent Rick Jones said if the teachers would have waited just a little longer on Tuesday night, it is likely school would have been canceled anyway for today as bad weather conditions were expected this morning.

“The union reps at each building let us know they will not be in the schools today,” Jones said. “We’re hoping this will be the last day.”

If it isn’t, he isn’t certain what moves the board of education might take.

Ohio County Education Association President Jenny Craig said the unions simply don’t trust House members, and if they were back at school they wouldn’t be there to keep an eye on happenings this morning.

She explained the House has 24 hours to reconsider the bill they “indefinitely postponed” at about 12:45 p.m. Tuesday. The House is scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. today, and there still would be time for a procedural move to revive the bill.

“We have heard there are several people who voted to postpone the bill could waiver and call for the bill to be reconsidered,” she said. “That’s why we are out (today) — to make sure the bill does die.”

“It can be reconsidered and brought back to the floor. If we were back at school, we couldn’t be there to fight it. To keep the pressure on, we need to be out tomorrow. After tomorrow, the bill will be dead.”

Hancock County Superintendent Tim Woodward said he couldn’t help but be disappointed with teachers.

“I understand we have considerable problems trusting the Senate, but the House has been very good to educators and education,” he said. “I trust when the speaker says (reconsideration) won’t happen, it won’t happen. We’ve asked the House to trust us, and we need to give them the basic respect back and let them do their job.

“Once the House has its 11 a.m. session, it’s time we start making decisions to get back in school.”

The bill contained a 5 percent pay raise and other financial incentives for teachers. But teachers said they were willing to give these up as it also contained provisions establishing as many as seven charter schools in the state, and removed caps limiting class size.

Statewide, many teachers’ unions voiced similar concerns over whether the legislature could be trusted to keep the bill down for the count.

“Our strike will continue due to rumors and statements that SB 451, which was tabled indefinitely by the House, might be brought back up for consideration,” said Bruce Boston, president of the Wood County Education Association. “Last year we had an earlier resolution to the work stoppage only to have Mitch Carmichael unravel that resolution at the last minute. While we thank those members of the House for their hard work. We are hoping that barring any last minute shenanigans by the Senate leadership we will be back at work Thursday.”

Adena Barnette, president of the Jackson County Education Association, said the school system has shown great unity during this difficult time.

“Our educators are some of the most selfless and passionate people on the planet. They go above and beyond in their classrooms each day to best serve their students and they can even stand up to every schoolhouse bully in the West Virginia Legislature,” she said.

The Ohio County Board of Education called a special meeting for noon Tuesday to discuss just what actions they might take if the strike continued. Earlier this month, members opted not to support a resolution denouncing the education bill, while still indicating their support for teachers.

Feelings of anger against board of education members may linger for some time, as employees flocked to the special meeting in droves, along with parents and residents.

“Vote them out,” the employees chanted at them.

Hundreds of school employees wearing red and carrying signs turned out to the Ohio County Board of Education offices Tuesday morning — with some representing Marshall and Brooke counties.

Only a fraction of those attending could be let inside because of fire regulations.

“We are going to be discussing here some things that are obviously very contentious in our community, as well as the state,” said Ohio County Board of Education president Zach Abraham.

He explained the special board meeting was called so board members could discuss matters pertaining to the work stoppage and express their opinions.

“We’re also going to be asking for more information as to our legal options and what this all means to everybody,” Abraham said. “That’s all part of the process we all have to go through as a board.”

Employees present were not given an opportunity to speak, and Abraham said they would get the chance when the board next meets for its regular meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at the board office.

He then called for an executive session so the board could privately discuss legal matters with counsel, and this resulted in loud protests from the audience.

After board members exited, the employees continued to listen intently to legislative proceedings in the board room. Among themselves, they began to chant, “kill the bill.” The same call could be heard inside from those standing outside the building.

The board’s executive session went on for about 45 minutes as House members continued their debate on the House floor in Charleston. After the vote was made to “indefinitely postpone” the bill, the employees initially cheered.

Their happiness then turned to chants of “vote them out” — words directed at board members.

The calls inside the board room silenced as board members returned. But those outside continued to chant, “Vote them out.”

“We applaud your effort,” board member Christine Carder said. “We are very happy that you have succeeded at this point. But these are not small things we have given up for students in the state and Ohio County. We hope the legislature can resolve some of these issues. At this point … we can just move on from here.”

The employees continued to show their dissatisfaction with the board.

“It would have been nice to have had that resolution,” said Jerry Ames, both president of the Ohio County School Service Personnel Association, and vice president of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.

Abraham responded that the board has an “obligation to fulfill our duties, as well.”

“I am glad (the bill) got suspended indefinitely,” he said. “We have asked (Superintendent Kim Miller) to open schools. Obviously, we want you back to school tomorrow, and we understand what you were working for — especially the students. But you also have to understand opposition, as well.”

The statement was meant with loud and stern reactions from those present.

Following the meeting, Abraham and other board members said they didn’t wish to provide any additional comment.

The vote to “postpone indefinitely” SB 451, the omnibus education bill, passed 53 to 45 Tuesday, with eight of nine Northern Panhandle casting “yes” votes.

The only “no” vote came from Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio.

“My vote was procedural, not for or against anything,” she said. “There are good things in this bill, like the $24 million for school counselors, nurses, and psychologists.”

“I wanted to continue to work it. We sent (the Senate) a good bill,” she added.

Republicans Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, and David Kelley, R-Tyler, joined Democrats Joe Canestraro and Lisa Zukoff, both D-Marshall; Phil Diserio, D-Brooke; Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, David Pethtel, D-Wetzel; and Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, in voting “yes” to postpone indefinitely.

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