Teachers, legislators seek solution to teacher pay, insurance woes

Teachers protest near Follansbee Middle School in Brooke County. (Photo by Scott McCloskey)

PARKERSBURG — West Virginia’s House of Delegates Monday rejected a 3 percent pay raise for school personnel, and instead opted to advance for a floor vote a 2 percent increase next year followed by one percent raises in each of the next three years.

Teachers also would receive 1.5 percent annual step increases.

The vote came after county union representatives Sunday overwhelmingly authorized state union leaders to take action in response to concerns over both wages and health insurance benefits.

“The governor proposed 1 percent, and the Senate had previously passed 1 percent; and the House doubled the 1 percent to 2 percent,” said Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, a retired teacher. He said a proposal for a 3 percent raise was deemed too expensive.

But “it would have cost more than $120 million, I believe,” said Anderson. “And the budget just won’t sustain that. It would have thrown the budget into deficit within the next year.

“As much as I would have liked to vote for it, we have to make do with what we have.”

Gregory Merritt, president of the American Federation of Teachers of Wood County, said he feels certain the House bill was “an effort to make some sort of good step toward appeasing the employees in the state, but it’s still far from what we deserve.

“It is just almost laughable to think of how little amount of money that is,” Merritt said.

Anderson, however, said even a 2 percent raise will force lawmakers to take money from other places in the state’s budget, including not making complete appropriations requested by Gov. Jim Justice for commerce or tourism.

“But that’s only going to come about if the Senate agrees with our proposal and the governor signs it into law,” he said.

Meanwhile, Anderson said he was among sponsors of a resolution in the House to ask the Public Employees Insurance Agency finance board to halt any increases in insurance premiums or deductibles for one year. That means lawmakers must find another $29 million in funding for the program.

“Many teachers I’ve heard from were most conerned about the changes to their health insurance, PEIA,” Anderson said.

Any statewide action to be taken by teachers as a result of the ongoing concerns has yet to be decided, according to Merritt. He said teachers’ authorization of a strike does not mean one will occur immediately, but there probably will be other action at some point.

“We (in Wood County) have been engaging in informational pickets and walk-ins, but have not been engaging in any kind of work stoppage,” he said. “A walk-in is an act of support for your school and your school system. Teachers, students, service personnel, the community … everyone gathers in front of the building and we walk in together. It is not an act of opposition.

“We say it is better to walk in than walk out,” Merritt said.

He believes union leaders will continue to work “very hard to try to avoid a strike.” He and Bruce Boston, president of the Wood County Education Association, were among the more than 100 county union presidents at the meeting. Boston could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said Monday public school employees want to see action toward a long-term insurance fix, addressing lagging pay and ending attacks on their seniority system and union representation.

“These folks need to see serious commitments,” added Christine Campbell, American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia president. “Our folks are angry.”

Though union representatives have not released county-by-county vote totals, Merritt said the vote by representatives of those counties Sunday reached the supermajority standard that was set, at 70 percent.

Sunday’s vote by public school employees allows the AFT and the West Virginia Education Association to choose action that includes what would be the first statewide teachers strike in almost 30 years.

According to Merritt, one of the concerns is raise percentages are based on the base salary for a first-year teacher in West Virginia. That would mean the raise is the same dollar amount for everyone, no matter the qualifications, education level or experience, he said.

“Two percent is better than 1, but still not nearly enough for people to see an actual difference in their wallets,” Merritt said.

“So much of the unrest around the state, although salary and insurance are a big part of it … people are worried about the future of our state economically,” he said. “We want to see our students succeed, have qualified teachers who care about them. There are so many vacancies across the state.”

Merritt said he would like to see a 3 or 4 percent increase for each of the next five years.

“We want legislators to support us,” he said. “We want to feel like the elected officials believe we are important to the economic future of our state.

“We want to attract business, and part of what attracts business is for people to be certain their children will get a good education.”

However, Merritt acknowledged, “I don’t think it’s an easy fix.”

Anderson, too, points out the challenges. “We have to live within the money we have available,” he said.

Educators and other public employees are planning a rally on the Capitol grounds in Charleston at 1 p.m. Saturday, Merritt said.

With reporting by the Associated Press.