Educators ‘stunned’ over education omnibus, call it ‘retaliation’ for work stoppage

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Kanawha County Education Association Co-President Dinah Adkins did not mince her words when describing the West Virginia Senate’s omnibus education bill following a meeting Monday with members.

“It’s retaliation for teachers standing up for public education,” she said.

“Retaliation” is also how Marmet Elementary School teacher B.J. Fontalbert spoke of the legislation, stating the measure was a response to last year’s statewide education work stoppage.

“It’s an absolute waste of paper. It’s not about the kids,” she said. “It’s about retaliation for what we did and how we made them look last year.”

The Senate voted Monday to consider Senate Bill 451 as a committee of the whole before taking up the matter as a chamber. The legislation includes multiple provisions like raises for school workers, moving public funds for charter schools and increasing class sizes.

The Senate Education Committee referred the bill to the Finance Committee after the body approved it Friday, but the chance the legislation would have passed was low because two Republicans voiced their opposition.

The Kanawha County Education Association held a members-only meeting Monday at Capital High School to discuss the bill as well as further actions to consider.

“Some of the teachers and personnel were kind of stunned,” Adkins said, “They can’t believe the legislators are proposing education that is so detrimental to public education.”

Laura Hudson, a Chesapeake Elementary School teacher, said the concerns teachers and school service personnel mentioned during the 2018 teachers’ strike is part of the newest measure.

“It is not for children. It is not in the best interest of education in any way, shape or form,” she said.

Hudson stated she is worried about the proposed increase of class sizes — going from 28 students to 31 — noting it would give teachers less time to work directly with students.

“If you think your children are not getting a good education at this point, then you better look at that. The less time that we can spend with your child, that’s what they want,” she said.

Fontalbert said tools for addressing mental health and other problems student face would be a better way to use state funds.

“You all know the drug problems,” she said.

“It’s not just reading, writing and arithmetic anymore,” Hudson added. “It’s social issues that we deal with every day, and it starts in Pre-K. I see it every day, and it’s a sad situation that I don’t feel our government cares about.”

Leah Ann Guthrie, who also teaches at Chesapeake Elementary, said a pay increase is not enough to win her support.

“We do not want this passed because of what it’s going to do to our children,” she said.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, told reporters Monday the bill was not a response to last year’s work stoppage.

“It’s not retaliation,” he said. “What we are doing is providing education for the next generation of West Virginians. For anyone who wants to focus on providing a world-class education for our citizens, this is the right bill to do it.”

He additionally said teachers would be welcome to speak before the committee of the whole on the legislation.

West Virginia Board of Education President David Perry issued a personal statement asking the board to discuss the bill.

“While changes to West Virginia’s public education system are most certainly needed, I personally believe that some of the proposals in the Senate Omnibus bill will not work to improve public education, but rather inflict great harm on our system, and possibly run afoul to the landmark Recht decision,” he said.

The Mingo County Education Association and the county’s American Federation of Teachers chapter voted Monday for each employee to vote on holding a one-day walkout over the legislation.

“We’re monitoring closely the activities going on, and everything is on the table at this point,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.

Lee, education group leaders and education officials held a press conference at the state Capitol earlier on Monday to urge lawmakers to oppose the bill. Lee also attended the Kanawha County Education Association.

“Crazy times,” he said. “When the Senate wants to continually thumb their nose at educators, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Adkins said going on strike is the last option for teachers and others.

“Do they want to? No. But do they have a red shirt and are ready to roll? Absolutely, if it is necessary,” she said.

“It’s almost as if someone is holding a big red flag out of the Capitol and challenging (us) with the worst possible scenario for an education bill,” Adkins added.

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