by Kate Shunney
Morgan County Schools were closed on Tuesday, February 19 as teachers and school personnel around the state went on strike in opposition to an education bill making its way
through the West Virginia Legislature.
SB 451, called the Education Omnibus bill, includes a pay raise for public employees, investments in the West Virginia Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA), incentives for teachers in high-demand subject areas and other benefits for teachers.
The bill also sets up a pathway for charter schools in the state, education savings account that could use public school funds for private education and other measures that school personnel and officials see as threats to the state’s public school system.
Morgan County Schools Superintendent Erich May said Tuesday morning that county schools were closed because at least a third of county school employees notified officials they would not report to work on Tuesday.
“It’s not just the teachers we need. We need people in all classifications to have school,” May said.
He said the county has to have enough personnel to safely transport and supervise students, run kitchens and provide other basic services to students.
Tuesday’s school closure will have to be made up in the school calendar. May said the decision to close all county schools for a shortage of personnel makes Tuesday equivalent to a snow day.
May said he hopes the work stoppage doesn’t turn into the kind of extended strike that took place last year.
“I’m sorry it’s come to this and I’m really anxious to get students back to class,” said May.
With a snow storm predicted overnight into Wednesday, it’s likely Morgan County schools will be closed at least part of the rest of the week.
The Board of Education had set a special meeting last Tuesday, February 12 to discuss SB 451 and entertain a resolution expressing concerns about parts of the proposed law. That meeting was cancelled due to an inclement weather school closure. That discussion was on the agenda for the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, February 19.
Morgan County Schools were closed for nine days last year during a statewide teacher strike. Teachers received a one-time pay raise following the strike.
This year’s education bill proposed further raises, improvements to public employee health insurance coverage and costs, and other measures to improve staffing, teacher training and student supports.
State teacher union leaders issued a statement on Monday night that a state strike was a way to fight against defunding public schools and an effort to privatize education.
“Given the Senate’s actions—ramming through a secret bill on a purely partisan vote, after the House has rejected it and the governor has said he would veto these type of retaliatory measures—the educators of West Virginia have no choice but to once again walk out for our students and our public schools. We won’t let outside interests rig West Virginia’s politics; silence the voices of teachers, parents and our communities; and defund our students’ public schools. West Virginians want to fund our future, and that’s what the Senate should be focused on,” said Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president and AFT-West Virginia President Fred Albert.
At press time, the West Virginia House of Delegates had voted to indefinitely postpone action on SB 451. Governor Jim Justice had said he would veto the bill if it included measures beyond teacher pay raises, public school improvements and fixes to public employee insurance.