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Ohio Valley Top 10: No. 2 — Statewide Teachers Strike Set in West Virginia

Photo by Scott McCloskey Ohio County teachers wave to passing motorists on National Road during a demonstration in the Woodsdale section of Wheeling on Friday. Schools around the Mountain State are closed again today as West Virginia’s statewide teachers and service personnel strike enters its third day.

WHEELING — West Virginia’s public school teachers and service employees joined forces in late February in Charleston to announce a state-wide strike for Thursday and Friday, and the work stoppages may not stop at just two days unless lawmakers address their calls for lower health care premiums and higher wages, said a local union official.

An estimated crowd of between 10,000 to 15,000 people gathered outside the State Capitol Saturday — many of them members of the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.

They came to Charleston to protest what they see as a failure by the Legislature to halt their rising Public Employees Insurance Agency premiums, which have now been frozen for the next 17 months by the PEIA board. They are also unhappy with legislation giving teachers as much a 2-percent hike in 2019, and 1-percent raises each of the following three years. The service employees and members of the State Police would get a 2-percent raise the first year, and 1 percent the second year.

Ohio County School Service Personnel Association President Jerry Ames, also vice president of the WVSSPA, said the strikes on Thursday and Friday are called for all 55 county school districts in West Virginia.

The unions also plan to call for additional walkouts in specific counties the following week if legislative leadership fails to listen to the school employees’ protests, he said.

“It would be a rolling walk-out, with a couple of counties each day going out and sending people to Charleston,” he said.

Ames said he will meet with local WVSSPA members today, and at that time he will be able to gauge the amount of support from them for a walk-out.”

‘They seem pretty unified,” Ames said. “They have expressed concerns they could lose their incentive pay, but it’s unlikely that would happen as the schools are likely going to have to close if there’s nobody there.”

Teachers receive an incentive pay of $1,350 at the end of the school year if they have no dock days, and school districts now have to decide whether to call off school and give teachers a dock day,

Ohio County Schools Assistant Superintendent Rick Jones said West Virginia School Superintendent Steven Paine has scheduled a conference call with the state’s superintendents for Monday morning to help them determine their next course of action.

“We really don’t have a lot of information yet,” Jones said. “After the conference with Dr. Payne, we’ll learn a lot more about the do’s and don’ts of this.”

For example, school districts still aren’t certain whether scheduled extra-curricular activities can continue during a work stoppage, according to Jones.

Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said Saturday night he doesn’t believe a teacher’s strike is necessary, “and I’m not sure what can be gained from it.”

A bill to provide an additional $29 million needed to keep PEIA premiums as they are for 2019 is moving through the Legislature, he said.

The House and Senate have passed differing versions of the pay raise bill, which currently sits untouched before the Senate Rules Committee. Ferns said he expects the Senate to act on the pay raise bill early this week.

“Considering the state is recovering from five straight years of budget deficits, I don’t know what more the state is capable of doing currently,” Ferns said. “A walkout at this point only hurts the students of West Virginia, and the families that will have to stay home from work while the kids are out of school.”

Ohio County Education Association President Elaine Sedilko was traveling back from Charleston in a snow storm Saturday, and said she could not safely speak and provide comment on the day.

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