Teachers rally across West Virginia, flock to Capitol for work stoppage

Teachers and school service personnel hold signs that read "enough is enough" and "you can't put students first if you put teachers last." (WCHS/WVAH)

Thousands of teachers and school service personnel in West Virginia began the first day of a two-day walkout Thursday, ignoring a threat by the state attorney general that their action is illegal and showing their continued dissatisfaction over pay and health insurance issues.

Outside of Riverside High School Thursday morning in Eastern Kanawha County, teachers chanted "fed up and fired up," hoisted signs and were greeted by honks from passing motorists.

All 55 West Virginia public school districts have canceled school for Thursday in anticipation of the work stoppage. By 10:30 a.m. Thursday, more than 2,000 educators and service personnel had gone through Capitol security.

Concerns over the rising costs of their health insurance has been one of the major sore points for teachers and school service personnel. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and lawmakers have maintained they have made efforts to try to alleviate their concerns.

"Our goal is to get PEIA taken care of,” Lisa Otey, reading interventionist in Kanawha County, said. “We want it fully funded. The pay raise that the governor signed into law last night is not enough."

The finance board for the state Public Employees Insurance Agency, after the governor made the request, has voted to freeze the plan so a long-term solution to PEIA problems can be found. The board also has voted to approve other requests made by the governor – to eliminate the mandated participation in the Go365 program and the use of combined household income to determine rates.

Meanwhile, a West Virginia House of Delegates bill, Bill 4625, that would designate 20 percent of surplus dollars to a PEIA stability fund had a second reading Wednesday on the House floor. Wednesday night lawmakers discussed an amendment that would change the designation to 100 percent, but the motion failed.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers joined the teachers at Riverside. She grabbed a bullhorn and told teachers gathered near the school that they deserved more.

"These teachers have had less than a $1,000 increase in the last 10 years,” Weingarten said. “What does that say to the kids and to parents about the value of education in this state?"

More groups of educators gathered together Wednesday morning along Corridor G and other locations around the county with signs to share their views of the situation.

Some of the signs read "Enough is Enough," "You can't put students first if you put teachers last," "Don't make me use my teacher's voice," "Honk if you support teachers," and "I've got 99 problems and PEIA is all 100 of them."

"It really is everyone in West Virginia who is a state worker, that's what we're fighting for,” said Forrest Boggess, Riverside High School English teacher. “It's not just teachers, but it really does mean a lot to the community at large to see that we are a population that is willing to fight for something that we believe in."

At a special meeting Wednesday, the West Virginia Board of Education didn’t take a stance on the walkout, but approved a motion that directs its president and state school superintendent to meet with the executive branch and the Attorney General’s Office to “effectively communicate what has been accomplished to meet the requests of educators and service personnel.”

“We pledge to continue to understand the complications and the funding needs of the public education system and communicate those needs to a governor who has been supportive of education, and a Legislature that has shown responsiveness and willingness to change,” the board said in a statement. “Our education system is vital to the future of our children and our state economy. Our professionals are indispensable to that success. Above all, we pledge to always put the needs and interests of students at the forefront of our actions and decisions.”

Questions of the legality of the walkout remain. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey released a statement on Wednesday, saying strikes are illegal and his office is prepared to take action.

"Let us make no mistake, the impending work stoppage is unlawful,” Morrisey said in a news release. “State law and court rulings give specific parties avenues to remedy such illegal conduct, including the option to seek an injunction to end an unlawful strike.”

Morrisey said state law gives him the option to end an unlawful strike, but he didn't express how.

Also on Wednesday, Governor Jim Justice signed the new teacher pay raise bill into law. Under the bill, teachers would get a 2 percent raise for the first year and then a 1 percent raise for the next two years. School service personnel would get a 2 percent raise for the first year and then a 1 percent raise for the second year. The 2 percent pay raise will go into effect in July.

The bill will provide more than $119 million in pay increases to teachers, service personnel and State Police over the next three years.

Teacher unions say the bill is not enough to cover the increasing costs of health care.

Eyewitness News will provide team coverage on the walkout throughout the day and on social media.

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