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Teachers in W.Va. plan to walk out

March 14, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD and DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Members of West Virginia's largest teachers union in Berkeley and Jefferson counties will take part in an orchestrated walkout that prompted administrators to cancel classes today.

"It's something we got to do to get the attention of Charleston to improve the quality of the education of the students," Berkeley County Education Association President James G. Keller said Tuesday after teachers' votes were tallied at a closed-door meeting in Martinsburg High School's auditorium.

Morgan County teachers apparently opted not to take part in the walkout, said Dave Banks, the assistant superintendent of Morgan County Schools. Walkouts were expected in nearby Hampshire and Mineral counties and at least eight other counties across West Virginia, according to The Associated Press.

Martinsburg High School band director James Southern insisted the vote Tuesday was not about the money, at least for him.

"I don't personally have a problem with my salary," Southern said.

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But he does have a problem with the cost of living in Berkeley County, which he said has forced him to get a roommate to survive financially.

"I cannot afford my mortgage without one," Southern said.

Southern was among more than 200 union members, school administrators, parents and nonunion teachers who attended the meeting that Keller said resulted in an "overwhelming" vote in favor of walking out.

Berkeley County teachers are expected to rally at 5:30 this morning in the parking lot of Buffalo Wild Wings off Foxcroft Avenue in Martinsburg before dispersing to their schools to stage picket-line style rallies across the county, Keller and fellow BCEA executive committee members said. Posters proclaiming "Keep highly qualified teachers in Berkeley County" were expected to be distributed among those who will participate in the work stoppage, they said.

"This is all about the students - the whole thing," Keller said in a press conference with fellow members of the BCEA's Executive Committee in front of the high school. Keller said the union he leads in Berkeley County has about 700 members, which was estimated to be roughly half of the school district's 1,400 teachers.

Teachers in Berkeley County are expected to be at work today, but are able to take a "dock" day and will not receive pay, Superintendent Manny P. Arvon said. Teachers participating in Jefferson County will be assessed a day of leave, according to an announcement by Superintendent R. Steven Nichols.

"One of the worst things that could happen is that there could be dissension (in the remaining days of the school year) among faculty because of this," said Arvon, who urged teachers to respect one another's decision regarding the work stoppage.

"It's important that our teachers and our students learn and are taught in a positive environment," Arvon said.

Keller said another work stoppage could not be ruled out, if not until a "considerably later date."

Unfair treatment

One local union leader was overheard Tuesday telling teachers that state lawmakers, even after their decision last week to increase their salaries by 3.5 percent, do not treat local educators fairly.

"They won't respect us, if we don't stand up," the union leader said.

In the press conference, Keller said a 39.5 percent pay increase is needed to get Berkeley County educators "to the playing field" with neighboring school districts in Maryland and Virginia. He said the 6 percent raise the teacher unions sought from lawmakers wasn't nearly enough in the Eastern Panhandle.

Arvon said he was concerned about the effect of the rally on what has been strong local support among county residents for the school system.

"It's absolutely true that we are not getting our fair share," Arvon said.

Martinsburg North Middle School teacher Patricia Hartle said the public should be mindful of the financial suffering of educators' families.

"It's ridiculous that we're not appreciated in the state of West Virginia," Hartle said.

Rosemont Elementary School teacher Judy Pugh seemed conflicted about the circumstances.

"I just wish it wouldn't come to this," Pugh said.

In Jefferson County, Nichols said he was forced to close school because it appears there will not be enough teachers to lead classes.

As of mid-afternoon Tuesday, about 40 percent of Jefferson County teachers had notified school officials that they would not be working today and the number was increasing, Nichols said.

"There's no way we can do it," Nichols said.

In a faxed news release, the Jefferson County Education Association announced that teachers are "very unhappy" with the Legislature's pay raise and that teachers will participate in a "Blue Flu" today.

Instead of the 3.5 percent pay raise, Jefferson County teachers want a three-year pay raise package that gives a 6 percent pay hike the first two years and a 3 percent the third year, according to the release.

Betty Jo Walter, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but the group said in its release that the action was necessary for the good of schools.

"We are stepping up for the future of public education in Jefferson County and the state of West Virginia," the statement said.

The statement also urged people join teachers in the effort by contacting Gov. Joe Manchin by phone and e-mail and showing support for the action.

Today's cancellation of school cannot be made up by students because there is no room in this year's schedule to fit it in. School buildings will be open today for staff who may not want to participate in the walkout, Nichols said.

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