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Lawmakers’ Proposals Unlikely to Calm WV Teachers, School Workers

Thousands of teachers and school employees faced a cold rain to rally for better pay and insurance outside the West Virginia Capitol on Saturday. (Dan Heyman)
Thousands of teachers and school employees faced a cold rain to rally for better pay and insurance outside the West Virginia Capitol on Saturday. (Dan Heyman)
February 19, 2018

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia teachers say they'll strike Thursday and Friday over pay and health insurance, and bills likely to pass the legislature look unlikely to prevent a longer walkout.

The House and Senate have debated raising teacher pay by 1 percent a year. But according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, separate plans to cut business taxes would cost the same as an 11 percent raise for teachers and school workers.

Jentia Cheung, a middle school teacher from Wayne County, was in the crowd of thousands gathered in the cold rain for a Saturday rally outside the State Capitol.

"One percent is a joke,” Cheung said. “If we are so well off as a state that they can cut big business tax, than they can afford to pay us more money."

Senate Bill 267 would raise pay by 2 percent in the first year, and 1 percent in each of the next three years. It has passed the House, but is stalled in the Senate. Senate President Mitch Carmichael said lawmakers need to study it to see if the state can afford it.

Possibly even more important is the long-underfunded Public Employees Insurance Agency. Gov. Jim Justice has proposed freezing PEIA premiums for a year, and House Bill 4620 would transfer money from the rainy-day fund to pay for it.

Hurricane school bus driver Debbie Thompson said the PEIA is her make-or-break issue. She said a freeze isn't enough to keep her off the picket line.

"PEIA would have to be completely funded. It wouldn't have to be that we think it's going to be done, we have to know,” Thompson said. “And until we have that, I don't think we're not, not going to go on strike."

Even a 5 percent raise over four years and a PEIA freeze might not be enough to avoid more than just two days of symbolic walkouts. Cheung said over many years, pay for West Virginia teachers has fallen thousands - even tens of thousands - of dollars behind neighboring states. And now there are hundreds of unfilled vacancies.

"And what are we left with? A fix like the House of Delegates just voted in the other day, to where they are letting under-qualified people teach in the classrooms,” Cheung said. “They have been pushing things under the rug for years and years and years, and now a storm is brewing."

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV