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West Virginia teachers being polled on strike

March 06, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Teachers across the state, including those at Eastern Panhandle schools, are being asked by union leaders whether they would support a possible strike, West Virginia Education Association Executive Director David A. Haney said Monday evening.

"There's a lot of frustration out there right now," Haney said in a telephone interview. "We are trying to determine the level of their frustrations - quite simply, that's all were doing."

Before the Berkeley County Board of Education meeting Monday, Berkeley County Education Association President James B. Keller said that teachers in five of 30 schools had taken part in the straw poll so far. Preliminary results were "about 50-50."

Keller, a Martinsburg High School teacher, anticipated the polling would be completed by Friday afternoon.

He said WVEA leaders are planning to meet Saturday, the last day of the first session of the 78th West Virginia Legislature, to work on "a plan of action."

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"Right now, we're still in limbo," said Keller, who assailed Gov. Joe Manchin's 2.5 percent pay increase proposal as an "insult," especially for teachers in the Eastern Panhandle, who are grappling with spikes in property taxes and cost-of-living increases.

Keller said he had not heard from WVEA representatives in Morgan or Jefferson counties about how the poll had been unfolding and would not identify the schools in Berkeley County where some teachers were surveyed.

Haney said it was apparent to him that the levels of frustration statewide concerning the pay issue were greater in some areas than others. He noted news reports last week from Morgantown, W.Va., that Monongalia County school teachers were planning to take part in what was being called a "blue flu" and not report to work sometime this week.

Introduced in the House of Delegates on Jan. 31, Manchin's pay increase proposal (House Bill 2777) was amended to a 3.5 percent increase in the House Education Committee. It is pending in the Senate Education Committee.

State Sen. John Unger, a Senate Education Committee member, anticipated Monday evening that the legislation would be taken up in the next day or two and considered Thursday in the Senate Finance Committee. The session ends at midnight Saturday.

"They should get money," Unger said. "I hope they don't strike. Ultimately, we've got to think about the children.

"I lived through (a strike) when I went through school," said Unger, who was in high school at the time.

"It was kind of scary, nerve-wracking. I'm hopeful they won't have to do it.

Unger said he disagreed with Manchin's proposal, but doubted how much the 6 percent raise wanted by the unions would help keep teachers in Berkeley, Morgan and Jefferson counties from leaving the state to neighboring school districts in Maryland and Virginia.

"I understand (the) frustration of our teachers, with what's happening up there," Unger said.

Keller specifically noted that teacher salaries in Washington County, Md., and Loudoun County, Va., were "beating us up right now," and a strike would have serious repercussions for the community.

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