West Virginia Teachers, Protesting Low Pay, Walk Out

Demonstrators at Bridge Street Middle School in Wheeling, W.Va., on Thursday, as they participated in a walkout. Public schools were closed across the state for two days as teachers protested low salaries.

A two-day walkout by thousands of West Virginia public schoolteachers and employees to protest low pay will continue on Monday, organizers said on Friday afternoon.

The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association organized the statewide action, which left more than a quarter of a million students out of school on Thursday and Friday in the state’s 55 counties.

Christine Campbell, the president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, said the strike could last beyond Monday if necessary. Teachers across the state, she added, “have made their voice clear.”

“They believe that not enough has been done,” she said.

Organizers say teachers are so poorly paid in the state that some must take second jobs to make ends meet. In 2016, the average salary for a teacher in West Virginia was $45,622, ranking it 48th in the country, according to the National Education Association.

“Our state is not providing the resources for our students,” Cindy Nester, 44, a kindergarten teacher at Augusta Elementary School, said in an interview. “Generally, in a year, I probably pay anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 out of my own paycheck, and those are just for miscellaneous supplies.”

Schools across the state have a deficit of educators, and experienced teachers have left in search of adequate pay and benefits, the union said.

Ms. Nester, who lives in the city of Romney, agreed. “I live 40 miles from Virginia, 40 miles form Maryland,” she said. “All we have to do is cross those lines and we can make $12,000 or $15,000 more, plus those benefits.”

An estimated 5,000 teachers, parents and supporters protested at the Capitol building in Charleston on Friday, said Kym Randolph, the communications director for the West Virginia Education Association. There were slightly fewer demonstrators than on Thursday, when lines were so long it took up to three hours to get in.

“They are packing the chambers,” Ms. Randolph said in an interview. “The ones that got there early talked to legislators.”

West Virginia’s 680 public schools employ 19,488 classroom teachers, said Alyssa Keedy, a spokeswoman for the state’s education department. There are 277,137 students enrolled.

During the two-day shutdown, state food banks helped feed students who depend on school meals, and supplemental child care centers were set up, according to local news reports.

The strike took place after Gov. James C. Justice, a Republican, signed legislation on Wednesday that would provide teachers and school service personnel a 2 percent raise starting in July, part of an increase in salaries for some state employees.

Teachers and service personnel are scheduled to get an additional 1 percent raise in the 2020 fiscal year, and teachers will get another 1 percent raise in 2021.

“We need to keep our kids and teachers in the classroom,” Governor Justice said in a statement on Wednesday. “We certainly recognize our teachers are underpaid, and this is a step in the right direction to addressing their pay issue.”

Teachers’ unions say the raises will not cover cost-of-living increases. Ms. Randolph said that teachers’ salaries had stagnated for years and that the lack of state contributions to the health care plan had meant that inflation costs have been borne by the employees, who are struggling under higher deductibles, premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.

While the board of the Public Employees Insurance Agency, which administers the health care plan for state employees, has agreed to freeze rates in 2019, the teachers want a more permanent funding fix.

Governor Justice said the agency’s board would work on long-term solutions to address the teachers’ concerns. “Now we need to turn our focus back to continuing public education reforms and making our state educational system the best in the country,” he said.

Ms. Nester said the walkout seemed to have a lot of support from members of her community, adding that she was demonstrating in support of all state workers, not just educators.

“I think it’s very possible it could go on for a while,” she said. “I think we need to fight for this.”

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