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Published in Print: March 21, 2007, as Teachers in One-Quarter ofW.Va. Districts Walk Out

Teachers in One-Quarter of W.Va. Districts Walk Out

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Nearly 5,000 teachers did not report to work in West Virginia and some picketed outside the state Capitol in Charleston March 14 to protest a lower-than-expected raise.

But the protest failed to provoke Gov. Joe Manchin III into calling a special session to revisit the issue.

The one-day walkout closed some or all of the schools in 14 of the state’s 55 districts. It was called by leaders of the 17,000-member West Virginia Education Association, who say the state is losing teachers to neighboring states that pay more.

According to the WVEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, West Virginia ranks 47th in the nation for teacher salaries. The NEA’s annual salary survey says West Virginia teachers made $38,360 on average in 2005, compared with $52,331 for teachers in neighboring Maryland and $42,768 in Virginia.

The state legislature sets teacher pay in West Virginia, and although teachers received a 3.5 percent increase this year, that was below the union’s demand for a 6 percent raise for each of 2007-08 and 2008-09.

The low pay, union officials say, is taking a toll on schools. Nearly 50 percent of the state’s teachers are expected to retire in the next five years, said Charlie DeLauder, the president of the WVEA. With the low salaries, he added, the state has a hard time attracting teachers from out of state.

“We have got to convince our elected leadership to do what’s right to retain educators,” Mr. DeLauder said, adding that teachers will keep up the pressure on the governor to reconsider their demands to call a special session of the legislature.

But a spokeswoman for Gov. Manchin, a Democrat, said he has no intention of doing so. “We just finished a session where [the issue] was debated fully,” said Lara Ramsburg. The pay increase “provides significant new money in [teachers’] pockets this year.”

She added that the governor has given $143 million in pay raises for teachers over the past two years, and has also put $1.5 billion toward the teachers’ retirement system.

More Protests Planned

West Virginia teachers say the salary issue has been exacerbated by years of neglect by the legislature, and many past sessions have ended with no, or very small, salary increases for teachers.

Even so, last week’s action was the first major protest in nearly 17 years. Teachers statewide last went on strike in 1990 for 11 days to demand a raise.

Union officials said last week’s walkout was just the beginning of a year of protests, including pickets outside the governor’s mansion. Some local leaders suggested the possibility of more walkouts.

“As time goes on, we will see what the governor does. We’ll see if he plays, or he will get another booster shot and another,” said Ted Dixon, the president of the Fayette affiliate, which participated in the walkout.

In districts where there were no walkouts, teachers said they still support the WVEA’s stand on salaries. Many registered their dissatisfaction by wearing red, a color that signifies protest.

In Ohio County, located in the West Virginia panhandle, schools have lost many teachers to Pennsylvania and Ohio, said Melissa Fritter, the president of the local there. But the affiliate did not take part in the walkout because fewer than two-thirds of the teachers voted to do so.

“Our vote in no way reflects our satisfaction with the amount of the pay raise we received this year. We are disappointed in many of our legislators and our governor,” said Dinah Adkins, the co-president of the Kanawha County union, where teachers also opted out of the job action.

Administrators’ Pain

School officials denounced the decision by some teachers to stay away from work, but added that they, too, feel the pain of low teacher pay.

Superintendent Steven Nichols of Jefferson County, which sits close to the Virginia border, said he was “disappointed” by the teachers’ decision to walk out. But, he added, the salary issue is a pressing one: His district pays around $30,000 to a beginning teacher.

“The nearest school district to us is Loudoun [County in Virginia], where beginning-teacher pay is close to $50,000,” Mr. Nichols said. “What that’s doing is drawing our good teachers away from us.”

PHOTO: Sherry Perkey, left, and Linda Yoho demonstrate in front of the state Capitol in Charleston, W. Va., last week.
—Mollie Woody/AP
PHOTO: Ben Barkley, an organizational specialist for the West Virginia Education Association, rallies teachers last week in Green Valley, during a walkout to protest what the union says are inadequate raises.
—Eric DiNovo/Bluefield Daily Telegraph/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 28, Pages 5,12

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