Teachers optimistic as session begins
HUNTINGTON — The Charleston Gazette-Mail’s front page for the March 7, 2018, edition punctuated the energy of West Virginia’s statewide educators’ strike as it ended. Just two words, in boldfaced type, heralded the end game for one of the bigger chapters in the state’s long labor history: “TEACHERS WIN.”
But the finality it implied — that the matter had been settled — isn’t at all the case, said Fred Albert, the newly elected president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, the state’s largest education union at the center of last year’s statewide strike.
“It isn’t over,” Albert said Wednesday afternoon from the AFT’s Charleston office. “That’s why we’re being very vigilant and we’re asking people to stay on top of things and stay involved.
“We don’t want (the 2018 strike) to be a moment in history; we want it to be a movement.”
A 29-year veteran math teacher from Kanawha County, Albert was elected in November to replace the departing Christine Campbell, who led AFT-WV through last year’s labor dispute.
In the frosty cold morning 12 hours prior to Gov. Jim Justice’s annual State of the State address Wednesday night, school
employees across West Virginia staged a “walk-in” prior to school — waving signs and garnering public support before school hours without disrupting the normal day.
Aside from reviving public awareness to their cause, it was a symbolic gesture reminding West Virginia’s lawmakers that their actions in the 2019 legislative session will be under scrutiny, Albert added.
“It’s easy to say that you support our teachers and service personnel, but it requires action, and that’s what we’re looking for/′ he said.
The strike ended after two weeks of work stoppage in all 55 counties in West Virginia. The concluding compromise gave teachers and school service personnel a 5 percent pay increase and a promise to begin work on a permanent solution to funding the Public Employees Insurance Agency, or PEIA.
For this Legislature, Justice proposed in October an additional 5 percent increase and $100 million to fund PEIA — causes for optimism going forward, Albert said.
“The governor seems to be with us, and we appreciate the initiatives he’s proposing,” he added. “It’s now up to the Legislature, and we’ll be looking to see what they do going forward.”
Permanently fixing and funding PEIA again leads the AFT’s wish list in 2019 — a critical centerpiece that drove the 2018 strike. Providing schools with more in-house counselors and nurses and carving ways to attract and retain qualified teachers also tops the list.
On the lines of the latter, West Virginia State Superintendent Steven Paine has proposed some type of one-time pay incentive for teachers who aren’t certified to teach math but are teaching it anyway to increase their math education skills to address a statewide shortage in math teachers.
Albert said the union is willing to look at those options to address the shortage, but questioned whether that incentive would be enough.
Conversely, Albert said the AFT would oppose “any radical opposition from out-of-state interests,” which would include a push toward statewide approval of charter schools or creating an educational savings account.
“These kinds of things get in the way and divert attention from what really needs to be focused on, and that’s the support of our public schools,” Albert said.
While last year’s historic work stoppage inspired similar teacher protests across the country — including a potential strike brewing in Los Angeles — Albert said he did not anticipate a repeat episode in West Virginia this year.
“We’ll do what we have to do, but that’s something you don’t want to do every year — that was historic last year,” Albert said. “We just want our legislators to know we’re watching their actions and their support for public educators.”
The 60-day West Virginia legislative session began Wednesday.
During his State of the State address Wednesday evening, Justice said the upcoming budget puts education at the forefront, opening with his propositions for the state education system.
“We have made education our centerpiece,” Justice said.
A 5 percent average pay raise is included in Justice’s proposed budget for all state employees.
Justice said he wants to put $150 million into PEIA “without taking a dime from the budget” by using surplus funds after saying $100 million wouldn’t fix the problem. Additionally, he proposed allowing teachers to bank leave days, raising math and special education teacher salaries and allowing the PROMISE Scholarship to cover vocational education.