Reacting to what they say is an even more egregious hit to teachers in 2019 due to a proposed bill currently making its way through the Senate, a “hastily called meeting” was held by Mingo County teachers and union representatives Monday evening at Williamson PK-8 to go over the specifics of the bill and determine what if any action should be taken.
On Tuesday, 97 percent of the county’s teachers voted to repeat last year’s preemptive initiative by again staging another one-day walkout to protest the new omnibus education bill, contingent upon it becoming necessary at some point in the upcoming days.
Last year at this time, Mingo County teachers took the lead in the state and held a one-day walkout over, among other issues, the West Virginia Legislature’s proposed plan to offer state workers only a 2 percent pay increase as well as to make cuts to the state’s PEIA (Public Employee Insurance Agency) healthcare system.
That local initiative spurred a two-week statewide work stoppage, settled only after Gov. Jim Justice managed to negotiate a 5 percent pay increase as well as to offer assurances that no changes would be made to PEIA at least until June, 2019 while a task force looked for a permanent funding solution.
Because there is a “severability clause” included in the bill, meaning it’s an all or nothing package without the possibility of any one item being excluded, including the 5 percent raise, on Tuesday during a press conference the governor expressed his opposition and said he would veto the bill if presented as is.
The governor specifically said he is opposed to packaging funding for a pay raise and PEIA along with other education changes, such as those for charter schools.
“…You’re going to take all the good we are creating together and just ruin it,” he said.
Teachers’ union representatives say while the legislation — known as Senate Bill 451 or the less formal omnibus education bill—does include a 5 percent pay increase but that, if passed, would also include a significant decrease in funding for public schools by providing money for charter and religious schools, etc., as well as for homeschooling.
“This basically would mean our public schools would suffer, but more importantly, it means the children attending public schools would suffer,” said Sherrie Spence, Burch PK-8 teacher and president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)-Mingo County.
Another major point of contention, Spence said, is that the bill also would also affect seniority for teachers, giving local school boards the authority to consider mitigating factors other than just time on the job during a reduction in personnel.
Administrative positions, including principals, would also no longer have tenure after the year 2020, she said.
“One of the most important items in the bill, one which I don’t think most residents know but should be aware of, is local boards would have the authority to raise the levy tax rates without having to get approval,” Spence said.
Also included in the 144-page bill is language that would make it more difficult for teachers to repeat the work stoppage of last year, such as receiving no pay for the missed days unless they are somehow made up by the end of the school year, irrespective of the schools having been officially closed.
In addition, if a school is designated as closed, unlike last year, students would not be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities on those days that the school is officially not open.
“Everything in this bill is about retaliation from what happened last year,” Spence said. “And it’s anything but about the improvement of education that (Senate President Mitch Carmichael) and the others supporting it are trying to say it is.”
The bill was passed by the Senate Education Committee last Friday. However it bypassed the Senate Finance Committee and that body’s approval on Monday, which represented only the second time in state history that this chain of procedure has been circumvented.
Instead the bill went directly to the floor on Wednesday for the required readings and ultimate full Senate vote before being sent on to the House of Delegates.
As of press time, the bill was still being debated in the Senate and no vote deciding either its passage or failure had been taken.
“I think it’s pretty obvious why it went straight to the floor for the readings and vote,” she said. “(The Senate Education Committee) knew it would die there and never reach the Senate floor.”
Mingo County Schools Superintendent Don Spence said he was disappointed with the bill and is having a hard time understanding the reasoning behind it.
“I don’t understand why the senators who drafted this bill didn’t talk to the ones who know most about these issues—the teachers and administrators…those who deal with them every day, instead of going to outside sources for advice and information,” he said. “Like the whole West Virginia education system, I’m against what they’re trying to do and I’m 100 percent supporting our teachers and service personnel in this. If this passes, at the end of the day it will be the students who are going to be the real losers and the ones who will be disadvantaged most by it.”
Sherrie Spence said Mingo County teachers are waiting to give other counties an opportunity to vote on whether they want to participate in the one-day walkout before setting a definite time to go to Charleston to protest the proposed legislation.
“We want to give all the other counties time to vote on this,” she said. “When we go to Charleston we want to go with a huge crowd because there’s always strength in numbers.”
Another teachers’ meeting is scheduled for next Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Carewood Housing Complex building in Delbarton, she said, at which time a fixed date for the walkout could be scheduled if at that time it is still deemed necessary.