West Virginia teachers on strike

State Senate passes amended omnibus bill

Wood County Schools teachers and member of the Wood County American Federation of Teachers Amelia Wolfe, left, Debbie Caplinger, center, and Noel Clinton, right, wait for updates from state union leaders during a vigil Monday evening at Parkersburg City Park. Union leaders called for teachers and service personnel to strike beginning today in response to Senate Bill 451, also called the state education omnibus bill, which educators say would be harmful to public schools and employee unions. (Photo by Michael Erb)

PARKERSBURG — Local teachers and service personnel will not be at school today due to a statewide strike.

The announcement was made Monday evening in Charleston by representatives of the West Virginia Education Association, West Virginia American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.

Throughout the evening Monday, school systems announced closures, but officials were unsure whether this strike would be handled the same as last year’s work stoppage in which all 55 county-based school systems closed for nine days.

By 8: 30 p.m., 42 of the state’s school systems had announced closures, including Gilmer, Jackson, Pleasants, Ritchie, Tyler, Wetzel, Wood and Wirt counties.

Wood County Schools Superintendent Will Hosaflook said Monday evening the decision to close schools was made due to concerns over student safety and the ability to get students to school today.

Millie Stoneking, a teacher at Parkersburg High School and a member of the Wood County Education Association, speaks to people at a vigil Monday evening at Parkersburg City Park. West Virginia teachers and service personnel have been called to strike today by state union leaders in protest of the state education omnibus bill. (Photo by Michael Erb)

“After looking at the circumstances, with the statewide work stoppage announced, we had no choice but to close due to transportation issues and limited staffing,” Hosaflook said. “We have no idea how many employees would be here, and we can’t plan for our students’ safety.”

Earlier Monday, Senate Republicans introduced an amendment on SB 451, also known as the state education omnibus bill, to throw out all amendments approved last week by the state House of Delegates and instead substitute a new list of changes. Some were similar to ones in the amended House bill, but many walked back House changes in key areas of debate, including charter schools and voucher programs.

The Senate recessed until 6 p.m., but union officials held a press conference outside of Senate Chambers timed to take place right as the floor session was supposed to resume.

Union officials said the strike was necessary because legislators have not been listening to educators about their concerns and the harmful consequences of the omnibus bill.

Local members of the Wood County Education Association and the Wood County AFT held a vigil Monday evening at Parkersburg City Park, awaiting word from the state Legislature and union officials on the status of SB 451. Many expressed dismay and disappointment when the strike was announced.

“Public education employees certainly hoped to avoid a work stoppage this year. Our concern is for our students and quality, uninterrupted instruction,” said WCAFT President Greg Merritt. “The actions by the West Virginia legislature has forced this action. Employees in Wood County Schools will assist with food banks during the coming days, as we put our students’ welfare as the top priority. I sincerely hope this work stoppage is very brief.”

“It is regrettable the actions of the leadership of the Senate have led to this work action. The action of the leadership has been retaliation for last year,” said Bruce Boston, president of the WCEA. “The difference is last year the Senate targeted state employees. This year by proposing to take funds from public education the Senate leadership has targeted our students.”

Earlier Monday, Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, said he was disappointed in the version of the bill passed by the House, but believed the Senate’s amendments were in the best interest of the state and its students.

“I like the Senate version as it came out of the Senate originally. That was the best version,” he said. “The House, in my opinion, did a lot of damage to the bill and took out a lot of things that weren’t necessary to take out.”

The amended Senate version approved this evening “is certainly a reasonable compromise. It doesn’t go as far as I would like it to, but it’s certainly better than the ESAs being taken out entirely.”

The ESAs, also known as school vouchers, and charter schools have been a major sticking point between the GOP-controlled state Legislature and West Virginia teachers.

Earlier Monday, Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, said she expected the new amendment to pass, which included increases in vouchers and charter schools.

“We have the support to get it out,” she said. “It really didn’t change much” from the House version.

Boley has been a steadfast proponent of charter schools and vouchers.

“I think parents here should have options like they do in other states,” she said. “I don’t know why (the unions) are so scared of them.”

The amended version passed 18-16 Monday night, with two Republican senators voting no along with Senate Democrats.

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