MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — On the same day the Monongalia County Board of Education unanimously expressed support for competitive compensation for school employees, more than 50 teachers, service personnel and WVU employees gathered outside of the Erickson Alumni Center to rally against a proposed freeze to the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), among other issues.
“A freeze is not a fix,” Frank Caputo, Marion County staff representative for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) West Virginia.
He said that people were truly paying attention to the legislative process this year and that the people at the rally were there to make their voices heard.
During an emergency meeting of the Monongalia County Board of Education – the first Barbara Parsons, board president, could remember – the board approved a resolution that declared its support for compensation for all school employees that allows West Virginia to be competitive with surrounding states.
“I think we certainly see the plight of our teachers in the state of West Virginia,” Superintendent Frank Devono said. “And I think the Board is very sympathetic to the needs of being able to staff our classrooms with qualified people. I think the qualifications start with maybe adequate pay to be able to address some of the concerns that they are expressing.”
Devono said the board sees the plight of teachers and service employees and is sympathetic to the needs of being able to staff classrooms with qualified people. Monongalia County has the highest entry-level salary for teachers and the second highest average salary for service personnel in the state thanks to supplemental levy funding. It’s also one of the reasons, Devono said, that Monongalia County doesn’t have any of the more than 700 teaching vacancies across the state.
Sam Brunett and Heather Deluca-Nestor, presidents of the Mon County chapters of AFT and the West Virginia Education Association respectively, thanked the board for their support. Brunett told WAJR that teachers still would like to avoid a strike, but said the House of Delegates decision to pass the 2-1-1-1 pay raise bill earlier Tuesday has put both sides on the precipice.
“After today’s action by the House, I’d say that’s one step closer,” he said. “But then again, we have to leave the door open for negotiation as the session goes on.”
Linda Campolong, WVU employee and Peggy Runyon, with the WVU Police Department, said they were there as staff council representatives to speak for WVU employees. Runyon said many WVU employees were afraid that if they did not conform to what the state wants they would lose their job.
“The state has problems,” Runyon said, noting the loss of so much coal has cost the state a lot. “But you can’t take it out on public employees.”
Deluca-Nestor said she spent her day teaching before and attending meetings prior to the rally and that she’s heard rumblings of uncertainty all day long.
Not everyone attending the rally would be affected – some were there to show support or there in support of family.
WVU junior Savannah Carr, an education major, said she has family in the education system who would be affected by the proposed changes and that she also plans to be involved in the state’s education system.
House of Delegates candidate Danielle Walker was also in attendance and said that she was there because she stands for public education.
“I can’t say children are our feature and not support state employees,” she said.
Tuesday’s rally is just the latest in a series of actions taken across the state by teachers and other state employees. The WVEA and AFT-WV approved statewide action last weekend. If a strike occurs, it would be the first since 1990.
“I think it’s very similar,” Devono said. “I think the same frustrations existed today as they did back then in relationship to PEIA benefits as well as pay.”
Devono, who was a principal during the 11-day strike of 1990, said teachers had a much smaller voice — with no faculty senates in existence.
“I don’t see that same issue now, but I certainly see the same issues as it relates to low pay and PEIA and the doing away of the benefits,” he said.
Friday schools across Monongalia County will hold a “walk-in” – where all employees will enter the school at the same time. Devono has authorized the walk in, a post on the Mon County AFT Facebook page said.
For now, it’s merely a symbolic action. But Brunett said Charleston needed to really hear teachers and school personnel this time, as the State Senate now gets their original five-year, one percent pay raise returned to them as a four-year 2-1-1-1 deal.
“A hundred percent, I’m positive our teachers and public employees are not going to go for that deal,” he said.
William Dean and Alex Wiederspiel contributed to this story.