Teachers rally at Capitol

CHARLESTON — “We will vote you out” and “55 strong” were among the chants that overtook the state Capitol building Thursday as teachers from all across the state gathered to rally for higher wages and insurance reform.

Thousands of teachers and supporters filled the Capitol building and the surrounding area during the first day of the statewide work stoppage that left all public schools in West Virginia closed.

“We’re prepared to do whatever we have to,” said Kathy Morris, a teacher at Cabell Midland High School. “It depends how much (legislators) dig their heels in.”

Morris and her husband have 28 and 32 years of teaching respectively, and they were a part of the last teacher work stoppage in 1990. The issues they were fighting for then are still in need of work, Morris said.

“We really would’ve hoped we wouldn’t have to be back out here again,” she said. “Our salaries are not remotely competitive with anyone. We’re going to get slammed with insurance premiums.”

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said the two-day work stoppage was intended to address four major points of reform: Pay raises; getting rid of seniority bills, charter schools and other actions that take away from education funds; getting rid of bills like payroll protection and PEIA funding.

“We’re asking them to a put a task force together — and that we have seats at the table – so we fairly can discuss how to come up with solutions to PEIA,” Lee said. “That probably needs to include a funding source.”

PEIA’s Finance Board approved a freeze on benefits and premiums for the next year. House Bill 4625 moved to a vote Thursday. It dedicates 20 percent of the surplus money at the end of the budget year to the PEIA fund. The remaining 80 percent of surplus funds would be split between the Rainy Day Fund and General Revenue Fund appropriation.

Lee said this option doesn’t protect funding.

“As a math teacher, 20 percent of zero is still zero,” he said.

The walkout, which is immediately planned through Friday but could continue, is contingent on progress in these areas, Lee said.

“Discussion broke down about a week ago. It’s time to bring us back to the table,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s enough to stop the work stoppage, but it’s a way to make progress.”

Leaders of the movement are planning to re-evaluate the situation and any progress and make announcements about future steps Friday evening.

Teacher strikes and “concerted work stoppages” are illegal in West Virginia based on a 1990 official opinion by the Attorney General’s office. In a Wednesday Twitter post, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said the work stoppage was illegal and should come to an end. Lee said participants were made aware that the actions were technically illegal, but chose to go through with the work stoppage anyway.

“Teachers are viewing this as a way to educate and to make sure their voices are heard,” Lee said. “They believe their right to have their voice heard trumps the possible illegal action. They’re willing to take that risk.”

Lee said it was possible legal action could be taken, but he wasn’t sure and that teachers’ main concern is taking care of their students.

“Every teacher out there, if you ask them what their number one concern is – it’s the kids,” Lee said. “We want to ensure that every child has a great public education in West Virginia. You can’t do that when you’re taking away funding. You can’t do that when you’re running bills that show lack of respect to the educators.”