Wood AFT talks education omnibus

Bruce Boston, president of the Wood County Education Association, holds up ballots for an authorization vote which will be taken this week. The vote would give state union heads the ability to call for a walkout if an education omnibus bill continues to pass through the state Legislature. (Photo by Michael Erb)

PARKERSBURG — Members of the Wood County chapter of the American Federation of Teachers gathered Monday with state representatives to discuss the state’s education omnibus bill and the possibility of a statewide teacher walkout.

More than a hundred teachers and administrators gathered Monday evening at Van Devender Middle School to discuss the bill.

The walkout authorization vote for Wood County teachers and service personnel will take place today through Wednesday, with the county’s votes being tallied Saturday along with votes of the 54 other county-based school systems in Charleston.

If approved, the vote would give state leaders the option of calling for a walkout.

Last year teachers and service personnel held walkouts for 10 days while legislators considered pay increases and changes to the state’s employee insurance program.

Senate Bill 451, also called the omnibus bill, is a massive overhaul of public education in West Virginia, but critics say much of it seems to be in retaliation for last year’s strike and would be detrimental to teachers, service personnel, administrators and schools.

Joy Jenkins, staff representative for the West Virginia American Federation of Teachers, said the bill contains a five-percent pay increase for employees, sick day bonuses and tax deductions for purchasing classroom supplies, but also pushes for the creation of charter schools and voucher systems which would pull money away from public schools. Local school boards would be given more authority to fire administrators as “at-will employees” as well as the ability to raise local levy rates.

“The bad really outweighs the good,” she said. “The money follows the students, and we’re already facing massive cuts statewide due to declining enrollment.”

The omnibus bill also would prohibit employees from receiving pay or holding any extra-curricular student events during a walkout.

“That seems like retaliation for last year,” Jenkins said. “They are basically holding your pay raise hostage in this bill.”

State GOP leaders have been criticized for rushing the omnibus bill through the legislative process, voting to pass the bill to the Senate floor without it first going through finance committee and voting down all amendments before it was approved Monday afternoon.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, already has promised to veto the bill if it is approved without change by the state House of Delegates.

Greg Merritt, president of the Wood County AFT, said state lobyists and representatives have indicated there is little support for the bill in the House.

“Our hope is, and our insight is, it will not be passed in the House,” he said. “It will not even be considered in the House.”

But some teachers at Monday’s meeting expressed concern this week’s authorization vote would lead almost immediately to a walkout. Many questioned what the “trigger point” would be in the legislative process.

“We want to hear from our membership what this trigger point is,” Jenkins said, adding some trigger points could be if the bill does pass through the House at an accelerated rate, or the governor does not veto the bill if it comes before him. “No one wants to go through this again. It’s a last resort.”

Officials pointed out a statewide walkout would take the support of all school systems and their superintendents. Last year all 55 county school systems closed each of the 10 days.

“Last year the United 55 campaign was successful because it was 55 (school systems) united,” Merritt said. “We are just planning in case the worst happens.”

Bruce Boston, president of the Wood County Education Association, said ballots will be given to teachers before and after school today and Wednesday. Employees also will have the chance to cast ballots from 6-8 p.m.Thursday at the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library on Emerson Avenue.

“This is another tool to have, just in case,” Boston said.