Public schools throughout West Virginia are closed Thursday as teachers walked off their jobs and mounted a demonstration at the state Capitol in frustration over what they say is inadequate pay
The Charleston Gazette-Mail reports that more than 1,000 demonstrators waited in line Thursday morning at the entrance to the Capitol building in Charleston to express their displeasure with state lawmakers.
Late Wednesday, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced that he had signed a bill that would give teachers a 2 percent raise as of July 1, and a 1 percent raise each of the succeeding two years.
But teachers say those raises would be wiped out by premium hikes and benefit cuts from the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA). At the governor's urging, the PEIA board has frozen those cuts for a year, but teachers say a long-term solution is needed.
Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union, joined in the demonstration. She says West Virginia teachers have been "disrespected by their government officials, who think it’s more important to give tax cuts to the wealthy and to corporations" than to invest in education.
“People are saying we can’t actually live and teach, and we need the Legislature to actually treat us like the priority education should be," she says.
Teachers in surrounding states make anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 a year more than teachers in West Virginia, the union says.
“They say they want us to stay in West Virginia and teach our children, but the multiyear pay raise has now been reduced from 5 percent to 4 percent," says AFT-WV President Christine Campbell. "I don't believe that any of our school
employees are really buying what's being said, especially when there are personal attacks and all these things from different directions."
CNN reports that West Virginia has nearly 20,000 public school teachers and more than 277,000 students enrolled.
The AFT and the West Virginia Education Association had called for a statewide walkout Thursday and Friday to call attention to their push for better pay and benefits.
In anticipation of the walkout, State Education Commissioner Steven Paine issued a statement earlier this week:
“As a lifelong educator, I fully recognize and support the work of our teachers and service personnel. Our educators are committed to their profession and dedicate their passions every day to providing West Virginia students with the education they deserve. Only as we are able to provide competitive benefits – inclusive of adequate pay and affordable healthcare – are we able to recruit and retain the best talent. I fully recognize that our teachers and service personnel deserve more and, I personally know the West Virginia Board of Education, our Governor and our State Legislators agree. Unfortunately, the economic realities of our state may not allow everything teachers deserve to take place immediately.
I regret that circumstances have led to the announcement of a statewide work stoppage and I am working diligently with all parties to advocate for a prompt resolution. I am hopeful that action will be taken to prevent any disruption to students and classrooms. Work stoppages by public employees are not lawful in West Virginia and will have a negative impact on student instruction and classroom time.