Thousands gather at West Virginia Capitol steps to protest

West Virginia teachers and public workers gathered by the thousands in the pouring rain at the capitol Saturday afternoon to protest a potential insurance rise and low wages.

The rally emerged as a result of other localized protests to stop the change in the Public Employees Insurance Agency policy, or PEIA, and to give educators a fair salary increase.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said the legislation pushing to be passed is anti-worker and anti-middle class.

“Time after time, we’re told that our public schools are the cornerstone of all the great things that can happen in our state and that education is the key to economic development,” Lee said. “Not only do they ignore us on these issues, but they purposely run legislation to weaken our public schools in the heart of our workers.”

Lee said there are many ways that legislators could afford to put education first, including increasing service tax on gas.

“With the anticipated boom in the industry in the upcoming years, the state could see great increases in revenue,” Lee said. “We’re on the verge of greatness in West Virginia, but it can’t be greatness if we let the money go out of state like we did with coal.”

Megan Barber, a fourth-grade teacher in Putnam County, said a lack of respect for teachers is agitating these issues.

“At times, I’m not sure that people understand all the things that we do as teachers,” Barber said. “We start a lot of foundational things at this level in elementary that carry on throughout life.”

Barber said she worries that she will no longer be able to rely on the benefits of working in education if changes to PEIA are passed.

“As I was going through college, I knew I wouldn’t make the most money as a teacher, but I felt like it would balance out because I would always have good benefits,” Barber said. “Now, I’m not sure I’ll be able to count on that.”

Barber said she is concerned about how a potential strike could impact students and teachers alike if lawmakers do not act quickly.

“I think it could be a problem, not just as far as the content we’re teaching, but having that school time everyday where someone cares about them,” Barber said.

Barber said she could personally be impacted by a strike as well.

“I’m working toward a certification called National Boards Certification, which involves a lot of different components with reflection,” Barber said. “I won’t be able to do that without my students in the classroom.”

JoElla Engel, teacher at West Teays Elementary, said the issue of low salary today is very similar to that of the education strike of 1990, which she also took part in.

“Really, when you add up what we get extra per annual year, the cuts in our insurance for PEIA are going to be more than what we get annually per year,” Engel said. “We were 48th in the nation for teacher pay, and that’s where we’re still at.”

Engel said legislators are working against the working class and ultimately hurting the children in West Virginia.

“I feel like they’re leaning toward big corporations, and they don’t care about the state,” Engel said. “If they cared about the state they would care about the kids, and they would care about education.”

A statewide walkout was announced at the rally and is scheduled for both Thursday and Friday, forcing nearly every school in the state to close its doors to students.

Hanna Pennington can be contacted at [email protected].