Good-Faith Effort Made, But Target Keeps Changing

Throughout the past couple of weeks in Charleston, and around the state, there’s been really only one issue that’s dominated the headlines and the conversation: Our state’s teachers and school service personnel are very unhappy.

The hard part is that exactly why seems to be inconsistent and evolving.

First it was about the pay. Then it was about the cost of health insurance. If a solution was close on one, it shifted to the other.

I don’t blame the teachers for that, by the way. I blame the representatives of their two unions, who have taken every opportunity to manipulate this situation into a job protection program for themselves and not consider the greater good of the men and women who choose to pay them to be their representation.

Last week, the Governor signed into law Senate Bill 267, which was a multi-year commitment to improving the compensation of three categories of our most valued state employees — teachers, school service personnel, and employees of the West Virginia State Police. Over the next three years, this bill will provide more than $119 million in pay increases to those employees.

It’s no secret that last year at this time, we were facing a pretty dire financial picture in West Virginia. Years of declining severance tax revenue from Obama’s War on Coal, coupled with getting slammed with increased Medicaid costs to cover Obamacare, put a nearly half-billion-dollar hole in our budget.

But this year, things have started to improve. Our economy is slowly starting to climb upward. We won’t be faced with the choice we’ve had to make the previous three years: Cut and cut some more, or ask the citizens to reach back into their wallets to pay. With this modest amount of revenue we predict we’ll have in this budget, we had to make difficult choices about how those dollars were allocated.

It’s easy to explain why in Senate Bill 267 we devoted the lion’s share to our teachers. Our Constitution requires that the Legislature provide a thorough and efficient system of public schools. With that clear directive in mind, we chose as a Legislature to allocate a larger portion of our resources to improving the pay of our state’s public school teachers. And, because we anticipate our state’s economic health to continue to improve, we pledge to revisit this issue in the future and make whole both the school service personnel and State Police employees who will not see as large an increase in this bill.

However, it seemed that before the bill even passed, it wasn’t about the pay and being equal with our neighboring states anymore. Now it was time to “fix” and “fully fund” the Public Employees Insurance Agency, or PEIA. Once the union bosses got wind that the House of Delegates had made substantial strides toward sustainable, long-term solutions to addressing that problem, it became about seniority — even when they knew those bills wouldn’t run. And then it was about charter schools. And educational savings accounts. And paycheck protection. And, don’t forget about the home schools.

It’s pretty obvious that while the majority of our state’s teachers are hardworking and eager to get back into their classrooms, their union leadership has figured out that there’s a lot of money to be made by continuing to be part of the problem — even at the cost of West Virginia’s children who are entitled to the best education we can provide.

President John F. Kennedy once said: “There is an old saying that the course of civilization is a race between catastrophe and education. In a democracy such as ours, we must make sure that education wins the race.”

I believe what you are seeing this week with our classrooms empty because of this strike — after they were given a pay raise and after their health insurance premiums were frozen for 18 months — is what happens when education doesn’t win the race. It’s what happens when the priorities of the union bosses take priority over the people they represent.

Between the employee pay raises and additional funding for PEIA, the Legislature has committed to providing more than $70 million in additional funding this year alone to benefit our teachers and public employees. This is a substantial amount of new money to direct to our employees without asking our citizens for new taxes.

Republicans are committed to providing our teachers and public employees the best pay and benefits our resources will allow. We have delivered a responsible, substantive increase to employee pay, while also halting any burdensome increases to their health insurance plans. I believe we’ve made a good-faith effort to not only listen to the concerns of our state’s teachers, but act upon them, and do what we can to get them back into the classrooms and back with the children and the jobs they love.

I’d say that’s more than what they’re getting from their unions.

Ferns is majority leader of the West Virginia State Senate. He represents the First Senate District. A licensed physical therapist, he is owner of The Ryan Ferns Healthplex Inc. in Benwood.