CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Thousands of chanting teachers and service personnel poured into the state Capitol today, the first day of a statewide teachers strike.
“Hey. Hey. Whaddaya say. Fund PEIA,” they chanted.
And “55 united! 55 united!”
With two secure entrances for the public, a line grew early this morning and eventually wrapped around the back of the state Culture Center.
“Hey. Hey. Whaddaya say. Fund PEIA.” pic.twitter.com/LcxNSzmYGq
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) February 22, 2018
Teachers filled the galleries in both the House and Senate, where legislators planned to go on with normal business. Committee meetings were also going on as usual, even as teachers gathered outside.
Teachers from all 55 counties walked out today over wages and health care costs. Even as the Capitol crowd surged, many more were picketing outside their local schools.
“We’d rather be in the classroom,” said David Bannister, a physical education teacher at Pinch Elementary. “But we have to take care of our families too. We have to get their attention. We haven’t been able to get it any other way. So here we are.”
The walkout is officially set for Thursday and Friday, but could continue if matters can’t be settled. There was talk of rolling walkouts, with counties going out a few at a time.
Mary Ross, an English teacher at Webster County High School, left for Charleston at 6 a.m. today.
“It is nice to see so many other public employees out so you don’t feel so isolated,” Ross said. “It’s good to come out and see so many other public employees.”
On Wednesday evening, the eve of the walkout, Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill with a pay raise averaging 2 percent next year for teachers, service personnel and State Police. Each group would receive another average 1 percent raise the following year with teachers in line for another 1 percent raise the third year.
The teachers have said the raise amounts don’t keep pace with their increased health care costs.
The Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board met this week and froze the current plan. That will cost the state an estimated $29 million. But teachers and other public employees say they want serious movement toward long-term stability for the plan.
Ross said her top priority is getting health care costs under control.
“We need to get our public insurance system fixed so our children can stay in this state,” Ross said. “I’ll be retiring next year. I want my students to be able to be teachers and stay in West Virginia. I want my colleagues to be able to raise their families on a teacher’s salary.”
HOPPY KERCHEVAL: Teacher and service worker strike: Day 1
Mark Montgomery, a middle school teacher from Independence HS in Raleigh County, & David Thompson, a school bus driver from Wayne County, join @HoppyKercheval at the Capitol to talk about why they’re striking. WATCH: https://t.co/wkudfIAoe1 pic.twitter.com/4AqSjCLQv4
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) February 22, 2018
Delegate Marty Gearheart, a Republican from Mercer County, was among those looking out at the crowd as it continued to grow. He noted that this was the latest of several recent rallies and protests at the Capitol.
“I’m not certain that it has been this loud and boisterous, but people have an opinion and they have every right to come to their Capitol and express it,” Gearheart said.
“I think we do have to listen to the message,” Gearheart said. “We have to carry on business. We have to recognize what can be done within the state budget and with the revenues that are available.”