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Some Panhandle teachers walk out to protest pay

March 15, 2007|by DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Hundreds of teachers in Berkeley and Jefferson counties skipped work Wednesday in protest of a pay increase plan from the state.

They relayed stories about how low salaries are forcing school officials to hire people who are not trained in teaching and how the situation is affecting the quality of instruction in classrooms.

Dozens of teachers demonstrated across Berkeley County, waving protest signs and getting occasional cheers from motorists.

It was a noisy affair at times outside Musselman Middle School along U.S. 11 near Bunker Hill, W.Va., in southern Berkeley County as motorists blew their horns and teachers gave a thumbs-up in return.

"It's been great. The community has been very supportive," said Andrea Demasi, a special education teacher at Musselman Middle School.

Jim Keller, president of the Berkeley County Education Association, said Wednesday that he did not know how many teachers stayed away from work to protest the state Legislature's pay increase of 3.5 percent.

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Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny Arvon said about 375 teachers participated in the work stoppage, which was roughly 34 percent of the county's teacher force.

In Jefferson County, about 75 percent of the county's teachers stayed out of classrooms, Superintendent of Schools R. Steven Nichols said.

In Berkeley County, demonstrators could be found outside some schools while none were at others - which some teachers say reflected the pockets of support for the walkout.

No demonstrators were observed at Jefferson High School, the adjacent Ninth Grade Center, Ranson Elementary School or Wright Denny Elementary School in Jefferson County.

Jefferson County teachers who wanted to participate in the walkout were told they would have to use a sick day, Nichols said. Those teachers had to be at home Wednesday "taking care of (their) illness. And that's where they were," Nichols said.

About five teachers were demonstrating Wednesday afternoon outside Berkeley County's Valley View Elementary School along Nadenbousch Lane near Darkesville, W.Va.

The instructors told stories relating to low teacher salaries in the county, including one incident recently where a teacher was hired but couldn't stay on the job because the person could not find an affordable place to live.

Teachers in the area have talked about instructors being hired who don't have backgrounds in teaching, and one of the demonstrators at Valley View Elementary School said her daughter had to take Spanish I over again because the girl did not have a solid enough background to move to the next level Spanish class.

The teacher said the Spanish teacher could not speak Spanish.

Demasi said some people who come to Berkeley County looking for a teaching job are often right out of college and did not study education in college. The candidates are hired and designated as "permanent subs" to help fill vacancies, Demasi said.

"We're struggling every fall to fill positions," Demasi said.

School officials emphasized that the walkout means students will lose a day of instruction, but Keller said that pales in comparison to students facing "a whole year without a certified teacher next year."

The sporadic support for the walkout was illustrated at Martinsburg South Middle School.

Only about five of the school's 80 teachers decided to walk out, and teachers were seen in the halls Wednesday and were working in their classrooms.

Some teachers have said they want a three-year pay package consisting of a 6 percent pay increase the first two years and a 3 percent pay increase third year.

Sixth-grade teacher Scott Gusic scoffed at some of the demands, and said teachers need to come up with proposals that are mindful of the state's financial situation.

"I don't think this was our best course of action," Gusic said.

It was a tough day for some teachers because they said they respected their colleagues' decision to walk out, but it was not something for them.

Martinsburg South Middle School teacher Vicki Clipp worried that her decision to work Wednesday would be viewed by her peers as a statement that she did not support them.

Clipp said she thinks teachers should have postponed the walkout until the school system had a chance to analyze various school funding proposals that the Legislature recently passed that could be used to increase salaries.

The walkout also included a rally at Martinsburg North Middle School where Keller and local teacher Tom Fletcher, also a member of the West Virginia Education Association's executive committee, spoke, Demasi said.

Throughout the day in Berkeley County, teachers waved signs with statements like "Keep Your Child's Teacher Here in Berkeley County, Only the Best for Our Students, Save Your Child's Teacher."

Arvon said he traveled around Berkeley County and talked to teachers who worked and who demonstrated. While there was disagreement over the walkout, teachers generally respected each others' decision, which is important to ensure "cohesion" in schools, Arvon said.

"It's now important that we move forward," Arvon said.

Teachers have said they are angry over the state's inability to increase local teacher salaries which are about $10,000 less than some salaries being offered in neighboring states.

Schools in both counties are expected to be open for students today.

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