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'Stakes are high,' West Virginia Board of Education president says at emergency meeting

West Virginia Board of Education members gather for an emergency meeting Wednesday in Charleston. (WCHS/WVAH)

With their president saying the stakes are high, West Virginia Board of Education members met in an emergency session Wednesday with the two-day walkout by teachers and school service personnel just around the corner.

“These are highly emotional times, so I think to go through and think through these things is important,” Board President Thomas Campbell said.

In its morning session before it recessed, the board did not address specifically how each county will handle the two-day walkout planned statewide Thursday and Friday. Board members talked about a number of items, including pay raises and health insurance, and then took a recess because they said they had a commitment for a presentation at the Legislature. The board said it would resume the meeting later Wednesday morning but might go into executive session.

All 55 West Virginia counties will be closed for the walkout – Barbour, Berkeley, Boone, Braxton, Brooke, Cabell, Calhoun, Clay, Doddridge, Fayette, Gilmer, Grant, Greenbrier, Hampshire, Hancock, Hardy, Harrison, Jackson, Jefferson, Kanawha, Lewis, Lincoln, Logan, Marion, Mason, Marshall, McDowell, Mercer, Mineral, Mingo, Monongalia, Monroe, Morgan, Nicholas, Ohio (closed Thursday, no decision on Friday yet), Pendleton, Pleasants, Pocahontas, Preston, Putnam, Raleigh, Randolph, Ritchie, Roane, Summers, Taylor, Tucker, Tyler, Upshur, Wayne, Webster, Wetzel, Wirt, Wood and Wyoming,

Kanawha County said all extracurricular activities are canceled those days.

The state board sent out a news release and said it adopted the following motion at its emergency meeting directing its president and state school superintendent to “meet with the executive branch and 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. 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.”

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued a news release late Wednesday afternoon, calling the work stoppage unlawful and said court rulings and state law provide the option to get an injunction to halt the walkout.

At the start of the meeting, the board heard from several people who talked about the impending walkout by teachers and school service personnel.

“The people are hurting,” said Joe White, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association. “This is bigger than us. This affects so many people in this state. This is huge. People are hurting. They want to be heard. Is anyone listening to thousands of people in this state?”

A representative of the West Virginia Professional Educators told the board its 1,200 members do not want to strike because they believe it creates ill will and disrupts the educational process. The representative said the organization does believe that a pay raise for teachers, school service personnel and state workers is long overdue and a solution needs to be found for health insurance offered through the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

Much of the morning’s session was a status report on where things stand with pay and PEIA benefits. The Legislature has approved and sent to governor a bill that would give teachers a 2 percent raise the first year and 1 percent raises the second and third years. School service personnel would get a 2 percent raise the first year and a 1 percent raise the second year.

State School Superintendent Steve Paine said the raises would amount to $808 for teachers in the first year and $404 in both the second and third years.

Board members agreed that everyone is trying to find a long-term solution for PEIA, noting that the premiums and benefits have been frozen next year and that the governor has committed to coming up with a permanent fix and wants a task force to study the issue.

There also was discussion about what kids who depend on the school system for food would do during a two-day walkout. Board members were told that county school systems would not serve meals and would not get reimbursed when school is not in session. School systems are working with the food they already have on hand, however, and collaborating with volunteers and community groups to try to ensure that kids get fed.

Campbell, the board president, said he has talked to many in the school systems and emotions are running very high.

“I know they are torn up about this (walkout). They also are torn up about the situation they have no control over – the condition of our state,” he said.

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