CHARLESTON, W. Va. (CN) — West Virginia’s statewide teacher strike was expected to continue Monday, with school doors closed to 277,000 students in all of the state’s 55 counties.
West Virginia ranks 48th in teacher salaries among the 50 states and District of Columbia. Only South Dakota, Mississippi and Oklahoma pay teachers less.
Crowds of red-shirted teachers stood along highways and roads throughout the state Friday and several hundred flocked to the state Capitol, where the Legislature has repeatedly denied teachers the 5 percent pay increase they are seeking.
The strike began Thursday, the day after Governor Jim Justice signed legislation granting teachers and state police a 2 percent pay raise. Teachers are to get 1 percent raises in 2020 and 2021.
Pam Brotherton, a teacher at Edgewood Elementary in Kanawha County was at the Capitol Friday protesting.
“Every year our health insurance doesn’t get funded,” she said. They don’t have a funding source for it and they keep cutting back and putting more and more of the burden on us. And they give us small raises and our raises are eaten up with our health insurance every year. So in a sense we lose money every year.”
Another Edgewood Elementary teacher, Kelsey Juarez, said: “One of my coworkers is making $300 less a month than she was last year.”
The state’s 20,100 teachers have called for the ouster of West Virginia’s Republican leadership, including Gov. Justice and state Senator Mitch Carmichael, who has angered the teachers by blaming their complaints on “union bosses” at a meeting last week. Many also objected that Carmichael appeared to laugh at the teachers as they gathered in protest outside the Capitol last Thursday and Friday.
Adam Culver, a teacher at Huntington Middle School in Cabell County and a member of the West Virginia Teachers Association, said: “For Mitch Carmichael to laugh at us and in the middle of his pandering to us about how hard middle school is to teach, it’s still not appropriate for our leaders to laugh at us and to act like our ideas aren’t important and like they can’t be done. He’s smug and honestly, that meeting caused this.
“That led to people being ticked off and wanting to vote him out and to take all the other Republican Senate leadership out. … We’re ticked off and we are not backing off.”
Culver, who was dressed up as a banana, said he attended the Friday protest because he was “pissed off.”
“We want 5 percent and we want it faster than in just a few years,” Culver said. “We had a 45-minute sit down with Mitch Carmichael last Friday that was recorded and he several times laughed at us. He unhinged that big jaw of his and cackled as though everything we were asking for was ridiculous. He told us that the gas severance tax would never happen because the businesses would leave. We know that’s not true in other states, like North Dakota. We know we can still have those businesses and tax them at 2 percent and at 3 percent more and get the money that we need.”
Culver referred to a bill the state House rejected in January that called for a severance tax on natural gas to fund the state Public Employees Insurance Agency. West Virginia has enjoyed a natural gas boon in recent years and proponents of the bill say some of the money derived from drilling in the Marcellus shale should go to fund the raises and the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
The Marcellus shale, the largest source of natural gas in the United States, underlies 104,000 square miles in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The surge in drilling since 2008, spurred by hydraulic fracturing or fracking, has produced trillions of square feet of natural gas. But many, including Lillie Junkins, a West Virginia Education Association leader in Harrison County, said much of that money leaves the state, with the benefits flowing mainly to the natural gas CEOs.
“Just look at what coal did to West Virginia,” Junkins said. “Coal companies took trillions and trillions of dollars worth of coal out of West Virginia and returned nothing. And now they want to come back and do the same thing with oil and natural gas.
“After coal pulled out, the people of West Virginia, especially southern West Virginia, were left extremely impoverished and now that the coal is gone they see that we are also rich in natural gas and are looking to do the same thing. And what are the people in Charleston doing? They are benefiting and the people of West Virginia are left empty-handed again.”
Junkins said the state Legislature “has been chipping away at our health care and our pay and it’s unacceptable, and we finally decided that we aren’t going to take it anymore.”
“In this society, we’re raising kids where the parents are absent,” Junkins said, referring to the regional opioid epidemic and attendant familial breakdown and student misbehavior in the classroom.
“We are not only teaching these kids,” she said, “we are guiding them and teaching them right from wrong. Authority figures are not just disrespected by the kids these days, it’s like they were raised to challenge authority and the people in our state government are completely out of touch with what happens in our classrooms. Just look at the shootings that are happening. They don’t even know what schools look like these days and it’s completely different than it was even 10 years ago.”