Alex Wiederspiel/Metronews
Public workers and educators in Monongalia County discuss ongoing issues at local AFT meeting in Morgantown.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Monongalia County educators will get a chance to decide their own fate.

Though the means of passing out the ballot remains undecided, those in attendance at Wednesday’s Monongalia County branch of American Federation for Teachers (AFT) agreed to take the first steps in an action authorization vote. Rather than authorize a specific course, it will merely authorize a larger collective of representatives from each county AFT to relay information about what the will of educators is in that specific county.

“There is right now in West Virginia among teachers a lot of anger, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of confusion,” local AFT President and Morgantown High School Art Teacher Sam Brunett said. “I think teachers right now feel very attacked by some of the members of the State Legislature, including some of our own House of Delegate members.”

Around 200 public employees and educators in Monongalia County met in Morgantown for more than two hours to discuss the litany of issues that have created the first rumblings of a work action among West Virginia teachers in decades.

“Up here in Monongalia County, it’s just a very confusing time,” Brunett said.

But, he said, what isn’t confusing is how the State Legislature currently views teachers in West Virginia.

“I think that just proves to every teacher the value of their worth from our current Legislature,” he said. “It proves to them how those people in Charleston feel about the jobs that they’re doing.”

Brandon Tinney, a staff representative with the American Federation for Teachers, said it’s been a long time since teachers have actually received a raise.

“You have a public school teacher in most counties, if you have you a Master’s plus 45 years experience, you can never make more than $60,000. That’s the top of the line.”

He said the primary concern is the ongoing under funding of the Public Employee’s Insurance Agency, which results in the difficult decision in either a reduction of benefits or an increase in premiums. Beyond the current fiscal year, he said a one percent pay raise won’t actually result in a raise for teachers.

“We could see anyone who is a public school teacher in the salary range of $35,000 to $60,000 — nine times out of ten is going to see an increase in PEIA premiums,” Tinney said.

Brunett echoed that sentiment, calling the yearly exercise to fend off major changes to PEIA a personal struggle.

“As a father and as a husband, I’m worried about raising my own children and being able to afford to raise my own children and being able to offer them a quality education and also providing my own children with the healthcare that they need,” he said. “And, quite honestly, the way things are going with PEIA, it becomes more and more difficult to provide my children the healthcare that they need.”

The number, Tinney said, is about the same every year: $60 million.

“If we don’t find $60 million to plug in PEIA, there has to be a reduction just because of medical inflation,” he said. “So if you plug the $60 million in this year, you’re going to need $60 million again next year for full inflation for that year. That’s what we’re saying by fully fund the program.”

What educators in Monongalia County decide on the pending action authorization vote, at this point, is anyone’s guess. No matter the decision, Morgantown High School physical education teacher Barbara Solly said, like in 1990, educators and public workers are only safe in large numbers.

“I think if you all do the same thing, then they’re not going to be able to single any one person out,” she said. “When we went out before, we all went out.”

By law, public employees in West Virginia can’t engage in a work stoppage. An action authorization vote, which doesn’t necessarily authorize a work stoppage, would need 70 percent approval from every employee. Anyone who does not vote is counted as a de facto ‘no’ vote.

“I think the best thing in the state would be for our legislators to recognize that we have over 10,000 school employees in this state that are standing up and saying, ‘Listen, enough is enough,'” Brunett said. “We need support from Charleston. We need support in our public schools, and it’s up to them. They were elected and put into office to do so.”

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