W. Virginia teacher’s strike: ‘We feel … under attack’

John Raby
Associated Press

Charleston, W.Va. – The West Virginia teacher’s strike entered a new week with no immediate resolution in sight. Teachers are waiting for state lawmakers to agree on a pay raise, and state House and Senate negotiators scheduled a Monday meeting to try to resolve their differences.

The House approved a 5 percent pay hike, but the Senate agreed on 4 percent.

Many teachers said they’d rather be in the classroom. But they say they believe they’ve come too far to back down.

“We feel like we’re under attack constantly,” said Cody Thompson, a social studies and civics teacher at Elkins High School. “Eventually whenever you’re pushed into a corner, you’ve got to push back.”

That leaves West Virginia’s parents anxiously trying to fill their children’s idle hours with something besides playing video games, and teachers showing rising discontent as the strike drags on amid concerns about their own income.

The teacher walkout over pay and benefits shuttered classrooms Feb. 22. Since then, angry teachers have gone to the Capitol to press legislators to raise their pay, nearly the lowest in the nation, after four years without an increase.

“What we’re seeing is a movement in the U.S. Not just a labor movement. It’s a class of people rising up,” said Sam Brunett, an art teacher at Morgantown High School.

The walkout began after Gov. Jim Justice signed a 2 percent pay raise for next year. The House of Delegates later approved a 5 percent increase, negotiated last week between Justice and the unions.

Then on Saturday, the state Senate approved a 4 percent raise, prompting angry union leaders to vow to stay out of the classroom indefinitely. The House wouldn’t agree to the Senate’s move, sending the bill to the conference committee.

Del. Paul Espinosa, one of three House conferees, said they’re scheduled to meet late Monday afternoon but his group was willing to meet sooner and try to convince the senators to back the 5 percent raise. “We understand the urgency to get our children back to the classroom,” he said.

Keeping schools shut for 277,000 students and 35,000 employees has been determined on a day-to-day basis. In a state with a 17.9 percent poverty rate, teachers and volunteers have gathered food for distribution to students who rely on free breakfasts and lunches at school.

To make ends meet for themselves, many of these teachers have side jobs.

Brunett does freelance art work on the side. Thompson has sold pizza, served tables and worked at a discount store. He now also works in a federally funded outreach program to help prepare students for college.

Kristie Skidmore, an elementary school reading specialist, has an adult clothing shop at her home.

“You’re looking at people here who every day care about other people, other families. People’s kids,” Skidmore said. “But at the end of the day, now we’re forced to be able to figure out how to care for our own families. That’s what it’s all about.”

As for the students, it’s not like they can go with their families on a long vacation.

At a Charleston mall, Cheryl Carty said her niece – second-grader Zoey Lanier – has filled the void with activities that have included a visit to a museum children’s exhibit and a trip to the movies. Between licks of ice cream, Zoey said she was disappointed she couldn’t return to school to turn in an art project she worked hard on that was due.

Elsewhere, Brady Stafford and about a dozen of his friends got in some extra practice at a South Charleston soccer field.

Stafford, a Charleston seventh-grader, said that since the strike began, he’s attended sleepovers and played Xbox games. His friend, seventh-grader Ben Jamerson, admitted he’s had bouts of boredom.

At a nearby ice arena, Melissa Hodges took her two daughters for regular skating lessons. Additional bonding with mom aside, fifth grader Kelsie Hodges is ready to get back to school. “I miss my friends,” she said.