As a frigid wind blew around 6:30 Wednesday morning, Kanawha City Elementary teachers gathered in the dark on the sidewalk on 36th Street, holding signs and receiving a few supportive car honks in the moments before school began.
“We’re out here just to let the Legislature know and the governor know that we still remember, we still didn’t get PEIA fixed, so we want that to be a priority, we want more funding for our schools, we don’t want them to cut the taxes, we heard rumors of the business tax being cut,” said third-grade teacher Danielle Loehr.
“We’re still ready to fight,” interjected fourth-grade teacher Danielle Fernandez, another of about 15 teachers on the sidewalk. Her sign read “Funding education should be normal, not historic. #FundEducation #FixPEIA.”
This was among the “walk-ins” at West Virginia schools Wednesday, the first day of the annual regular legislative session.
Last year’s historic statewide public school worker strike won a 5 percent pay raise for school employees, and Public Employees Insurance Agency health insurance coverage benefits were spared from cuts.
But last month, Republican Gov. Jim Justice’s PEIA Task Force, created as part of a deal to end the strike, announced that it wouldn’t recommend a long-term way to fund the state health insurance program at its current benefit levels before the now-beginning session.
Stonewall Jackson Middle School teacher Jay O’Neal said teachers “walked in” in multiple counties, but didn’t know exactly how many. He said the demonstrations were also about pushing for more employees in schools to deal with the problems students are facing.
“We want to remind and alert our communities, the Legislature and the governor that our schools are kind of dealing with a crisis,” O’Neal said. “We see the effects of poverty and the opioid crisis every day here and we feel it when we don’t have enough teachers, enough bus drivers, school psychologists, counselors.”
Loehr also said schools need more counselors.
“We’re cutting teachers and school staff, and that’s not what we need, we need more help,” she said.
O’Neal said the WV United Caucus, a group of teachers of which he’s a member, came up with the idea for the walk-ins and pushed it in local union meetings, on Facebook and through caucus members’ contacts.
Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers union’s West Virginia arm, joined demonstrators at South Charleston High alongside Kanawha County Board of Education member Tracy White.
South Charleston High language teacher Robin Peck held a small sign in each hand, one saying “Fund PEIA” and the other saying “Increase Salary!”
She had a third, “Coat Club,” attached to the lanyard hanging around her neck — a reference not to the outside temperature, but the climate she and her students deal with inside the classroom.
“I always wear a coat because the HVAC in our building is inadequate and my classroom temperature ranges from 57 to 60 degrees,” Peck said of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. She said it’s been that way for all 10 years she’s been at the school. (Kanawha County’s excess levy property tax increase for schools, passed by voters in November, is expected to address the school’s HVAC issues.)
Peck said the main reason she was demonstrating Wednesday “is I have colleagues who struggle to pay their medical bills, I have colleagues who work an extra job or two, and this is unconscionable, we value education, you can’t do this to your teachers, stress ‘em out, and overwork ‘em, we’re professionals.”
“They have a family member with a serious disease, they shouldn’t have to worry about bankruptcy, they shouldn’t have to worry about moving to another state because we’re not covered adequately,” she said.
This story was originally published by Charleston Gazette-Mail.