Approximately 100 teachers, students, administrators, and their supporters rallied Friday afternoon in response to changes to their insurance benefits through the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). The proposed changes are not subject to a legislative vote and are scheduled to go into effect July 1.
Attention given to the issue last week, and a statement from Governor Jim Justice, states that one point of contention has been taken away, the penalizations that as part of the Go365 plan.
Initially Go365, if insured members did not participate, would fine members by increasing their premiums and deductibles.
Abby Woofter, a Lewis County High School senior was at the rally Friday, saying, “I’m supporting my mom [a cook at Jane Lew Elementary School].”
Along with Woofter, other LCHS students were in attendance.
“Our teachers are not being treated fairly. You can’t take away someone’s one percent raise if you’re going to raise their healthcare costs,” Lewis County High School Senior Justin White said.
LCHS Social Studies teacher Terry McAbee expressed pride in the students who were there. McAbee said one student rode his bike across town to be at the rally.
“They know more than we think they do. They’re learning a lot about politics,” she said.
Senior Benji Harman said he lives with two teachers, and the issues personally affect him. Ninth grade student Taylor Beam said she has had teachers who have helped her through a lot of things and “it’s unfair they’ve had this happen to them. I wanted to come out and support them. There are a lot of teachers here who really care about their students. They deserve a lot more than this.”
LCHS Band Director Allen Heath recalled his first teaching job in Virginia prior to earning his Master’s. He said his starting salary in VA is roughly the same amount as he is making in WV now with his advanced degree plus experience. LCHS Senior Ian Taylor was also standing alongside his teachers Friday. His reason for being there was because of one of his former teachers who changed his life.
“She was that teacher for me. The teachers here made a big difference in my life so I wanted to give back,” Taylor said.
Heath echoed McAbee’s statement by saying that students are aware of the issues, and they stand with their teachers.
Missy Walsh, teacher at LCHS, as well as Special Education Social Studies. Her students have just finished learning about the Constitution, and she said they’ve been very interested in the subject.
“This is a great lesson for them,” she stated.
West Virginia State Senator Mike Romano (D-12) said in a phone interview Tuesday that school employees and state employees have gone without any raise in four years and they are not keeping up with inflation. He added that the one percent raise does not cover PEIA increases for this current year alone. The Senate passed the one percent pay raise on Friday, but Romano stressed that Democrats were in protest of that vote, but knew it was the only way employees would sees a pay raise. The bill moved to the House as of press time.
WV House Representative Patrick Martin (R-46) said, also in a phone interview, that PEIA used a slush fund to keep from raising its premiums, but that has now run out. He also added that under House Bill 4006, which revises the “processes through which professional development is delivered for those who provide public education,” Energy Express is a line item and will not go away, but Arts Administration is not, which could save thousands of dollars in costs that could be put into local school boards. That bill has moved on to the Senate Education committee as of Feb. 1.
Romano said, “It’s an embarrassment that representatives in the legislature have not fully funded PEIA by forcing members to shoulder all increases when they have not received a raise since 2014.”
He continued by saying that the legislature is considering huge tax breaks totaling 140 million in annual cuts to the budget by 2026 by eliminating personal property tax on business inventory and equipment over a seven year period, beginning July 2020.
“We should be able to take care of our teachers and state employees so they can take care of their families. Only when government learns when putting money in the hands of working people will we create a great economy and West Virginia will prosper,” Romano said.