Teachers in West Virginia are facing a battle over their paychecks as insurance hikes threaten to outpace raises ― leading to a virtual pay cut.
As a measure to provide raises for teachers lingers in the state’s House of Delegates, one lawmaker admonished his colleagues for spending more time this week discussing issues relating to “turkey breasts, opossums, crows, trout and deer” in West Virginia than cries for help from its educators.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re about one-third of the way through this legislative session,” Del. Mike Caputo (D) said. “We’ve got galleries full of people who are worried about their livelihood, and we spent 20 minutes talking about opossums.”
On Monday, the West Virginia House passed a bill making it a crime for hunters to waste game by leaving carcasses behind or only taking trophies, such as antlers. Over in the Senate, lawmakers talked about legalizing an unusual method of catfishing called “noodling,” which involves plunging one’s arms into a stream and hauling a fish to shore after it latches on.
“We’re talking about 9 million issues that don’t protect the livelihood of the people we should be protecting,” Caputo said.
Hundreds of teachers from a handful of the state’s southernmost counties skipped work Friday ― closing schools in their districts ― to appear at the state capital in Charleston. They hoped to send a message to lawmakers in the Senate who were voting that day on a bill to provide 1 percent raises for teachers over five years. (Individual districts are free to increase pay further if they so choose.) That comes out to around $400 per year, but critics say it’s not enough to match changes in insurance premiums, slated to go into effect July 1.
The outcry led Gov. Jim Justice (R) on Tuesday to ask the Public Employees Insurance Agency, which provides insurance to public school districts, to freeze premiums for the upcoming fiscal year. The move would allow for more input from enrollees and lawmakers on the changes that were originally approved in December.
Asked whether this decision changes anything for the state’s teachers, Kym Randolph, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia Education Association, had a simple answer: “No.”
“They want to kick the can down the road so they don’t have to make a tough decision in an election year,” Randolph said.
Lawmakers aren’t going far enough to provide teachers the pay raises they need to stay competitive, she added, especially considering how many teachers can simply drive across state lines to find better paying jobs. West Virginia has been ranked 48th in average teacher pay, according to the National Education Association. (The national average teacher salary was $58,353 in 2016; West Virginia’s average stood at $45,622.)
“Their priorities are all over the place. If this were really a priority, they’d find money for it,” Randolph said. “They can find money for other things,” she said, like “giving taxes back to businesses.”
“You still have to prioritize schools and state employees,” she said.
Despite teachers’ efforts, the Senate passed the measure 33-0, sending it on to the state’s House of Delegates.
“The benefit increases and coverage reductions are way more expensive than the amount of the raise,” sixth grade math teacher Violet Cohenour told WOWK. “So it’s kind of a slap in the face to say that they’re giving us a raise, because that’s not the case.”
The 1 percent proposal would also mean West Virginia would miss a goal it set back in 2014: to pay new teachers with bachelor’s degrees at least $43,000 annually by 2019. The state’s current starting salary for new teachers with degrees is $33,000, according to local news outlets.
Advocates for the 1 percent raises say the bill is fiscally responsible.
“We all know that’s not enough,” Sen. Sue Cline (R) told the West Virginia Gazette-Mail. “I’m personally so tired of hearing about how hardhearted I am, how mean I am.”