Salango, Union Groups Criticize Justice on C.A.R.E.S. Act Spending
CHARLESTON — Ben Salango, a Kanawha County commissioner and the Democratic Party candidate for governor, joined union leaders in calling for Gov. Jim Justice to use more federal funding to ensure schools are safe to re-open during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re calling upon Jim justice to use the federal C.A.R.E.S. Act money in an appropriate and responsible way to protect our students, our teachers and our school service personnel,” Salango said.
Salango was joined by leaders of the West Virginia AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia in front of AFT-WV’s Kanawha Boulevard headquarters in Charleston Monday.
The two union groups announced their endorsement of Salango as Salango announced his plan for a safe return to school by students, teachers and staff.
The Salango plan, developed with the help of health experts, AFT-WV and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, calls for at least $116.8 million of the $1.25 billion the state received in April from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act dollars to be invested in all 55 county school systems to make schools safer from COVID-19 spread.
“We need certainty,” Salango said. “We need money that has been set aside from Congress, appropriated from Congress, into our public schools to make sure that our children, our teachers and our school service personnel are safe.”
Salango said he wants to use $80 million to provide all students with a computer device for virtual learning and a hotspot to access the internet through cellular networks. The installation of temperature check systems at schools would cost $6 million. A plan to hire health professionals at every school would cost $30 million. Upgrading cleaning equipment in all schools would cost another $810,000.
The plan calls installation of ventilation equipment in classrooms, which would require assessments of all schools to determine the level of need and the cost. Available COVID-19 testing would be needed for all students in staff, as well as personal protective equipment. Teachers and students living in at-risk populations or with people at high-risk would have access to virtual learning or other accommodations. Busing capacity would be increased, student-to-teacher ratios would be adjusted, additional teachers and support staff would be hired.
The Salango plan would also require an adaptable plan for counties depending on the number of active cases and community spread. It would create a statewide trigger system that would shut down all in-person learning in a county with spiking cases until those case numbers decrease.
“If we don’t take proper steps now and plan, our schools are going to be a breeding ground for COVID-19,” Salango said. “We’ve got to make sure that we are protecting our children. We’ve got to make sure that we get that C.A.R.E.S. money out to protect the children, to make sure that our schools are safe for everyone to attend.”
Justice announced July 8 that all schools in the state will re-open on Sept. 8 unless COVID-19 cases are still too high. County boards of education have until Aug. 14 to submit their re-entry plans to the Department of Education.
Fred Albert, president of AFT-WV, said teachers and school service personnel want to be back in the classroom, but it has to be done right.
“There’s nothing that teachers and students and parents want more than to be back in school,” Albert said. “We’re hoping that September 8th will be a day that we can reopen our schools. But as this COVID virus is proving to all of us, it’s changing every day. We’ve got to get the numbers under control, and so far we have not accomplished that in West Virginia.”
According to Justice, the state Department of Education has received $94 million in federal coronavirus grants separate from the C.A.R.E.S. Act. The money can be used for COVID-related expenses.
Speaking during his Monday coronavirus briefing, Justice said his critics were uninformed.
“I hate like crazy that we drift into politics and that we drift into ignorance,” Justice said. “Everybody wants to start running in a direction and saying something when they don’t have any idea what they’re even talking about. At the end of the day, it’s a political football. It’s a political season and you’re going to get a bunch of this.”
As of Monday, nearly $50 million of the $1.2.5 billion C.A.R.E.S. Act funds was approved for county and municipality reimbursement for coronavirus-related expenses, with 155 cities and county governments and agencies applying for the funding.
Salango has been critical of the pace of C.A.R.E.S. Act funding for local governments and has also called on Justice to call a special session of the Legislature to direct those monies where they are most needed, including to local governments, small businesses, first-responders and healthcare professionals and education. Justice has been adamant about not calling a special session, but Salango said it was long past time.
“It actually should have already happened,” Salango said. “We should have had the Legislature in town to make sure that that money is spent appropriately. What he’s doing is he’s holding onto that money. It’s not getting out to small businesses, it’s not going to our healthcare professionals, and it’s not going to our educators. He’s hoarding that money.”
The AFT-WV endorsed Salango’s general election campaign against Justice, the Democrat-turned-Republican governor. Tega Toney, vice president of the AFT-WV, said that Justice never filled out the endorsement survey for the AFT-WV. Justice was endorsed by teachers’ union groups when he ran for governor as a Democrat in 2016.
“I have been continually impressed by (Salango). He truly listens to the concerns of teachers and of service personnel,” Toney said. “Ben won’t pay us lip service. He’ll show us that he supports us in his actions and not just give us words. He will stand with us.”
The AFL-CIO endorsed Salango back in March during the Democratic primary and easily received the endorsement from the organization – representing 56 different union groups – for the general election in November.
“When Jim Justice refused to fill out our labor endorsement questionnaires this year in 2020 – even though he literally begged for the house of labor support in 2016 in which he got – he’s now showing his true colors by sending a message that he doesn’t care about working families and their issues,” Josh Sword, president of the AFL-CIO in West Virginia, said.
“People will be voting for a new governor in two short months,” Sword continued. “We can vote for one that won’t turn his back on working families. One that will show up to work every day, leave his business interests behind, and do what’s right for workers and not out-of-state corporate interests.”