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Teachers rally for a raise bigger than 1 percent

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Public educators rallied at the state Capitol today, saying the 1 percent raise backed by Gov. Jim Justice is not really enough to keep up with the inflation rate, healthcare costs or wages offered by other states.

Teachers also expressed objections to possible changes to state education policy, including charter schools, vouchers and education savings accounts. And they objected to legislation that could lessen the role of seniority in situations such as reductions in force and transfers.

Speaking to a crowd at the lower Rotunda, West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee made reference to the 11-day teacher walkout of 1990 over the lowest salaries in the nation.

Lee said, organizationally, no one is to that point yet. But he said it’s possible fed-up teachers could get there. His reference to the 1990 strike came as he asked teachers to urge their colleagues to get active:

“I’m going to ask you to go back to your schools. I’m going to ask you to ask your colleagues to get involved on the state and local level because it’s not just about us here. It’s about every teacher, every educator, every service professional in the state of West Virginia,” Lee told the crowd in the Rotunda.

“Now we were successful in that back in 1990. It’s because educators stood up all over the state and were counted. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about ‘It’s time for a walkout or time for a strike.’ But those are not the first step in that decision. It’s not the first step in what we should do to achieve our goals. If we were to get back to that, there’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid beforehand.”

In an interview a few minutes later, Lee said he doesn’t reference a strike lightly.

“It’s not something we say lightly, but it’s also to tell our legislators that anything is possible,” Lee said. “But we’re here today to work through that so those things don’t have to happen.”

He said any walkout would require a series of steps — mostly communication among educators.

“There were a lot of steps that were in place for that to happen. There’s a lot of information that has to get out. You have to get the colleagues working,” Lee said.

“Educators are angry right now. They’re frustrated. But you have to go back and make sure everything falls into place. We want to be able to work with legislators and to try to improve public education in terms of salaries and compensation and things that put dollars back in the classroom, not take away.”

Governor Justice proposed an average two percent pay raise last year, even ask shrinking state revenue had meant an enormous budget gap. By the end of the session, the Legislature had not approved a teacher pay raise.

Throughout the fall, even after the governor had switched parties from Democrat to Republican, Lee traveled with those supporting the statewide road bond initiative, believing the effort will improve the state economy.

This year, though, even as state leaders have said the budget picture has improved, the pay raise proposal for teachers and other public employees was 1 percent. Teachers do receive annual step raises outside what legislators may approve. The combination this year would be a total of about $1,000, officials have said.

Lee, again speaking after the rally, said he has hope that the governor and the Legislature can be persuaded to come higher than the 1 percent.

“I liken it to — since he (Justice) and I are both coaches — it’s the opening tipoff. There’s a lot of the game left to play. When you tout that the economy has turned around and that you see what was a $32 million surplus in the budget this year, yeah, 1 percent can go up.

“It’s easily something we can work with to improve that 1 percent number. Education should be the centerpiece. It’s the way you’re going to attract business into West Virginia — a high quality educated workforce and a high quality education system.

Lee urged teachers who’d gathered at the Capitol to go speak to lawmakers from their regions. Some legislators — mostly Democratic delegates along with Republican Delegate Mike Folk — attended the rally and lingered to talk to teachers.

Educators who attended chanted “Enough is enough. Enough is enough.”

One of those leading the chant was Lucinda Burns, a third grade teacher at Point Harmony Elementary in Kanawha County.

She said teacher pay has not gone up enough to counter increasing healthcare costs.

“PEIA is another huge concern,” she said. “We feel like our low pay in the past has been attributed to ‘Well, you get great benefits.’ We no longer get great benefits. And our great benefits are gone but our pay is still 48th in the nation.”

Burns said she puts a lot of her own money into her classroom. “That is very difficult when you don’t have a lot of income,” she said.

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