Over the course of the week, teacher rallies have sprung up around the state, as the West Virginia Education Association and the state chapter of the American Federation for Teachers continue discussions with members about possible strikes or walkouts. While increases to PEIA premiums and deductibles are some elements feeding those talks, teacher pay has been another flash point.
At least part of that teacher frustration has come into focus with Senate Bill 267, which would increase pay for teachers, school service personnel and state police. With the bill on Second Reading on the Senate floor Thursday, an amendment offered by Minority Leader Roman Prezioso called for a three percent raise this year instead of one percent proposed in the original version of the bill.
“When we look at what the one percent that the governor has proposed over five years -- let's take one percent a year. When you break it down, teachers take home pay is, what, [an additional] $34 a month? You can't hardly see that in a pay stub. But yet their PEIA premiums have gone up approximately $48 a month. That doesn't wash up,” said Prezioso, noting that deductibles are also on the rise.
While Senate Bill 267 focuses on increases in pay, discussion on the Prezioso’s amendment to the measure turned toward rising PEIA costs for teachers and other state employees. Democrats like Sen. Richard Ojeda, a former educator, said that’s one of the things most discussed by educators.
"The majority of our teachers in our classrooms have a masters plus 45 [credits]. And we pay them absolutely nothing. Now, as a person who spent four years in a classroom, every day during lunch I sit down with teachers and the discussion was always the same thing about how PEIA -- and I know we're not talking PEIA -- but that was something that ripped the apart of their benefit and it cost them more money in their pockets,” Ojeda said.
Republicans, though, argued that the problems surrounding teacher pay have been a long time coming, with West Virginia’s average teacher salary slipping downward nationally over the past few decades.
Sen. Patricia Rucker, another former educator, said lawmakers have other obligations in front of them this session and they cannot fund additional pay increases at the moment.
“This is a state that is struggling from lack of professionals. And we are trying to fix a problem that wasn't created in one day or one year. And the solution is not just money,” said Rucker. “I wish that we could just pay teachers right now the amount that I would consider worthwhile, which is an even larger amount than what [Senator Prezioso] has proposed with this amendment. But, the fact remains that we have to balance the needs of all of our constituents and all of our citizens.”
Others, like Judiciary Chair Charlie Trump argued that Prezioso’s amendment comes down to some sort of funding mechanism -- one that he said hasn’t yet found its way in front of the Senate.
“While I have to oppose the Senator's amendment right now -- what I will say here in his presence and in the presence of every West Virginian is -- if we bring to this floor a budget that will cut the Medicaid budget by 20 million dollars, I would be delighted to spend that on teacher pay and will vote to do so,” Trump said. “But, right now, with no mechanism evident or agreed upon to fund the additional money that would be provided by this amendment, I have to vote no.”
Prezioso’s amendment calling for a three percent pay increase failed 22-12 on a party line vote, which further throws into question what might happen with the possibility of a teachers strike. American Federation of Teachers - West Virginia president Christine Campbell said the amendment’s failure isn’t necessarily an instant catalyst for a strike, but that it’s one part of a multi-faceted set of concerns from teachers.
“People are frustrated and they're happy that the discussions are happening. But these things take time and I don't know that these folks can wait,” Campbell said.
Campbell said that some groups are not waiting any longer and that frustration has turned into action.
“I know that counties have scheduled meetings. Some counties are actually having second meetings and that they are continuing to meet. They already have meetings scheduled up into mid February,” said Campbell, also noting a February 17th day of action that has been scheduled in Charleston.
Moving forward, Senate President Mitch Carmichael said he hopes teachers realize that lawmakers are aiming to fund PEIA with another $10 million this year. As for talks of a strike, Carmichael said teachers should hold off and trust the Legislature is working to address concerns, including teacher pay -- even if the proposed one percent hike doesn’t seem like a lot.
“I agree it's not enough. But, it's all that we have right now. As we get more money, we are committed to to raising teacher salaries and making sure that they are compensated at a level that's commensurate with their peers across the nation,” Carmichael said.
Senate Bill 267 was advanced to Third Reading and is up for a vote in the Senate Friday.