MASON COUNTY — Though they weren’t in their classrooms, teachers and service personnel with Mason County Schools still showed up at their respective buildings on Thursday during a statewide walkout which will extend into today (Friday).
After days of warm, spring-like weather, the teachers did not let the cool rains of Thursday deter their enthusiasm for the cause, standing all day at their schools, holding signs along the nearest road. Some built fires to keep warm, others put up canopies and brought food to share with their school family. Many educators, the faith-based community and volunteers in Mason County also stepped up this week to make sure kids who count on being fed at school, have an option. Claire Cottrill organized the, “Food for Students,” program where food for students was donated on Thursday and ready for pick up today (Friday) at five locations in Mason County.
While some staff stood their ground in Mason County on Thursday, others traveled to Charleston to make their voices heard at the State Capitol Complex.
Tim Click, principal at Roosevelt Elementary, stood outside his school in the rain, along with his staff on Thursday. He said for him, and for several of his colleagues, fixing the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) was a top priority.
“We don’t want to go backwards,” Click said about the fight over benefits. “Being from a union family…you know when you take concessions, they don’t come back usually.”
Susan Sayre, a long-time elementary school teacher at Roosevelt, said, if she had local politicians in front of her, she’d like to have them sit in her classroom for one day.
“Although would one day show them what we actually do?” She asked. “For the most part, we’re the focal point of a child’s life…we feed, clothe and take care of (a lot) of them, in a way we never used to have to.”
Click stressed this fight wasn’t just for educators.
“This isn’t just (about the) teachers, this is all the state employees and we’re trying to help everybody, not just us,” he said. “It’ll affect everyone that uses PEIA, not just the teachers.”
As previously reported, on Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice signed a 2 percent raise next year for teachers, followed by 1 percent raises the following two years. According to the Associated Press, the average teacher salary in West Virginia is $45,622, well below the national average is $58,353. When the teachers last struck statewide in 1990, their pay ranked 49th in the nation.
Even after the raises signed by Justice and the reported “freeze” on PEIA, Mason County Schools staff remained committed to holding the line and holding their signs, contending, a “freeze” was not a fix.
More staff members commented on why they were personally outside their work establishments as follows:
“One is pay raises and fixing our insurance premiums through PEIA…that’s the two main avenues from across the state right now…we’re all in it together, we’re 55 strong, 55 counties,” Sam Nibert, instructor at the Mason County Career Center said.
Second Grade Teacher at Point Pleasant Primary School (PPPS) Blythe Powell said, “My big thing’s the raise…seniority off the table…and of course PEIA. We’re out here for all state employees…we’re out here for police, the squad, state road workers, everybody.”
PPPS Second Grade Teacher Loren Watterson said, “It’s not just about us, it’s about all state employees, but we’re the ones who can use the voice…so we’re the voice for all state employees.”
PPPS Second Grade Teacher Kim Hunt said, “I’m standing for all employees and my main concern is our insurance.”
Mason County staff members also commented on what it will take for this issue to be resolved.
Nibert said, “We could have a lot of jobs come into the state, but you’ve got to have educated and drug free people going into these jobs and it all starts at home. I went through this school system myself and the teachers, and the cooks, and the bus drivers, they inspired me to go on and get an education and come back into this field.”
Watterson said, “For the delegates to quit voting on just their party lines and come together as one and do what’s right, instead of doing what they think is right for their party.”
Hunt added, “Personal agendas need to be set aside and the parties need to be working together for the state, there is too much of a divide between Republican and Democrat.”
While staff were participating in the walkouts outside their buildings and inside the Capitol on Thursday, the AP reported the West Virginia House unanimously voted to use part of annual budget surpluses to help fund their health insurance. The bill, which needs Senate approval, would dedicate 20 percent of general revenue surpluses to stabilize PEIA. According to legislators, the state’s year-end surpluses have ranged from about $12 million to $339 million. Half those surpluses go to West Virginia’s rainy day fund. While the PEIA board has agreed to freeze insurance rates next year using money found somewhere in the state budget, the teachers want a more permanent funding fix.
Back at Roosevelt Thursday afternoon, as the rain came down, the spirits did not. When Click was asked what he would say to the leadership at the State Capitol, he said, “We want to work with them…we’ll lose everything if we don’t stand up for it now.”
Mason County Schools staff are awaiting word from union leadership over the weekend to determine if the walkouts will continue.
The Associated Press Contributed to this report.
Erin Perkins is a staff writer at Ohio Valley Publishing. Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.