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Teachers in W.Va. rally for higher pay

January 16, 2007|by DAVE McMILLION

EASTERN PANHANDLE, W.VA. - State Sen. John Unger said teachers rallying Monday in Charleston, W.Va., for higher pay did not have to convince him that a 6 percent pay raise is needed.

Unger agrees with them on that.

Unger said what he showed teachers Monday is how to hold lawmakers accountable to the interests of constituents and how to make sure lawmakers are working on the behalf of teachers in the Legislature.

In other words, Unger said he wanted to show teachers how to "pull back the curtain" to see what's going on in the Legislature.

"A little bit of knowledge goes a long way. They're in the knowledge business, so they understand it," said Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson.

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Unger's comments Monday night came after thousands of teachers converged on the steps of the state Capitol to demand higher pay.

Clad in red and waving placards, the crowd repeatedly chanted "It's not enough!" - a reference to Gov. Joe Manchin's proposal to increase teacher pay by 2.5 percent.

One teacher yelled, "6 percent or I won't stay!" and many others joined in, repeating the threat.

"For our area, it's just a message of the ability to compete," said Don Dellinger, principal of Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County, who drove five hours to attend.

"What we're looking for is for young teachers and experienced teachers to be able to live comfortably in our area," Dellinger said.

A low salary and a high cost of living is why Nicole West, 26, said she left Hedgesville Middle School. She couldn't make ends meet, despite working three jobs. She said she misses teaching.

Jim Keller, president of the Berkeley County Education Association, estimated about 4,000 teachers and service personnel from across the state showed up at the Capitol.

Keller said he felt good about the message that teachers sent to lawmakers.

"We got their attention, that's for sure. Because they saw numbers," Keller said by telephone Monday night as he headed back to the Eastern Panhandle.

Keller said the next step will be teachers making individual lobbying efforts for higher pay.

Teachers in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle have been upset over the inability of the Legislature to pass substantial pay raises for them.

Experienced teachers can commute an hour to counties in Virginia and Maryland and see a salary boost of more than $10,000, and local school officials have had to scramble to fill teacher openings left by instructors leaving for higher pay.

In his State of the State address last week, Manchin proposed a 2.5 percent across-the-board pay raise for teachers, and said the state is taking steps to make sure that no full-time teacher in West Virginia makes less than $30,000 a year, including starting teachers.

That's only a little more than the approximate $29,000 that Berkeley County Schools offers for starting teachers.

Unger said he talked to local teachers and to instructors from across the state about how to develop a strategy to get higher pay from the Legislature.

The Senate has been supportive of teacher pay raises, but they have struggled in the House of Delegates, Unger said.

After the rally, teachers crowded into the galleries of the House of Delegates chamber for its floor session, often applauding legislators' declarations that the proposed pay increase was not substantial enough.

"There will be no good paying jobs in this state without education and good educators," said Del. Larry Barker, D-Boone.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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