Hundreds of West Virginia teachers and school service personnel braved below freezing temperatures and rallied Friday at the state Capitol for better pay and benefits. While organized work stoppages came from those in Mingo, Logan and Wyoming counties, teachers from elsewhere around the state made their way to the the rotunda in Charleston.
The rally came as lawmakers considered Senate Bill 267, which calls for a one percent salary increase. Representatives of teachers unions say teacher pay is just one element fueling growing frustrations. Concerns over PEIA premium and deductible increases, as well as other currently proposed requirements of the insurance provider have also stoked the flames.
— Dave Mistich (@davemistich) February 2, 2018
After an amendment offered by Democrats calling for a three percent increase failed Thursday, Senate Bill 267 was put up for a vote. Many Democrats spoke on the floor stating that they would vote for the bill, acknowledging they wished the raise was higher than one percent.
“I’m going to support this bill. For that 1 percent. I don't support the 1 percent by any means but I do support us giving something to them and keeping this bill moving forward,” Sen. Bob Beach said.
“But it's unfortunate that we're at a position in our state's history right now with teachers service personnel and public employees and state troopers that these folks have to break away from the classroom to come down here. To get their message across,” he added.
Republicans argued that, given the current economic circumstances, one percent was all that could be done. Sen. Mike Azinger called for the repeal of the state business inventory tax, which he argues would help jumpstart the economy and could bring bigger raises in the future.
“We’ve got to start coming up with ideas in West Virginia that are going to start improving our economy and cutting taxes -- and getting rid of the punitive taxes is one of the ways to do it,” Azinger said. “We have to cut taxes and cut regulations and we've got to do it now so that we can help close teachers in the audience. We've got to get serious about it. And today's a good start.”
The bill ultimately passed the Senate on a 33-0 vote and now heads to the House of Delegates. Following the vote, close to a thousand teachers, school service personnel and other public employees carried on with their presence outside the Senate chamber with chants of one percent being not enough, PEIA needing fixed and continued threats of a strike.
— Dave Mistich (@davemistich) February 2, 2018
Across the rotunda in the House of Delegates, teachers pay and PEIA remained the topic of highly charged remarks.
Although he did not feel the bill was adequate in addressing teacher concerns, Del. Issac Sponaugle motioned to discharge that chamber’s version of the teacher pay increase -- House Bill 4145 -- to the floor. That motion was tabled. However, that didn’t stop discussion on the frustrations of public employees.
“I'm not happy. In 22 years, I've never seen such chaos in the House of Delegates. We are in crisis stage, ladies and gentlemen. The people of West Virginia want us to act and quit talking about turkey breasts,” said Del. Mike Caputo, referencing another discussion that was had on the House floor.
“I've never seen such chaos work coming apart at the seams. It is a shame. The public is out there watching this crap go on across West Virginia and we're talking about nine million issues that don't affect the livelihoods of the people we should be protecting. It's time to act. It’s time to act,” he added.
Sponaugle’s motion would have allowed the bill to be taken up Friday. Republican Del. Michael Folk argued that the bill was not in good enough shape to go to a vote and acknowledged other concerns from public employees.
“The bill we took up today would have left nothing for school personnel, for corrections officers, for state police for state employees. And probably bigger than anything is the elephant in the room that everybody's been talking about is PEIA, I don't know about about you all, but the people I talk to the teachers, the state employees -- that's a bigger concern than having a huge pay raise,” Folk said.
Leaders of the state’s teachers union say the passage of Senate Bill 267 is encouraging, even if the one percent raise included in the bill isn’t as much as they wanted.
“I think having that bill passed today actually gives it some more momentum to go. I think it had to pass at one percent,” said American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia president Christine Campbell. “But we'll see what the House those whether they look to increase that. I think people are not going to be okay when the pay raise that's being proposed and passed so far is going to outweigh the increases in their insurance.”
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee echoed Campbell’s thoughts.
“You have to remember, it's early in the session -- so, the vehicle is moving now. And there could be a whole lot of amendments made to it -- and the House can do with it what they choose and we're hoping to make strides in the House,” Lee said.
Governor Jim Justice canceled a Friday news conference that had been scheduled to address issues in public education. Teachers unions are planning a day of action at the state capitol on Saturday, February 17.