Why West Virginia teachers are fighting for better pay and benefits

Schools in West Virginia are closed for a fourth day Tuesday as nearly 20,000 teachers and about 13,000 school servic...

Posted: Feb. 27, 2018 1:50 PM
Updated: Feb. 27, 2018 1:50 PM

Schools in West Virginia are closed for a fourth day Tuesday as nearly 20,000 teachers and about 13,000 school service personnel participate in a work stoppage.

They're engaged in a battle with the state government for better benefits and higher wages.

Governor Jim Justice has maintained that the state's budget simply cannot handle the financial burden of a further pay raise for personnel -- he approved a 4% raise over three years last week -- or immediate changes to the public employees' insurance program.

Teachers, support staff and other supporters rallied at Charleston's state capitol building Monday, marching inside the building, waving signs at passing cars, and chanting on the steps.

Here are their stories, in their own words.

Tonya Spinella, fourth-grade teacher

"I'm a fourth-grade teacher in Mercer County. ... I also have a second teaching job that I teach online to Chinese children. I teach them how to speak English. ... We have two little boys at home, and the whole insurance prices raising is going to be a real issue for us, for our family. And really, sometimes the only way we can make ends meet is through my second teaching job and through other little side jobs that I do."

Erica Smith, teacher in Monroe County

"I'm 18 years in, and this year I finally paid off my student loans. We're not being greedy -- we're trying to stand up for everybody, because as teachers, that's what we tell our kids to do."

Kathy Coyle, middle-school librarian

"I'm getting ready to retire. It's not about me. But as we move out, we've got to have people who want to stay in.

"I was born in Maryland. And if I lived in my little, dinky town of Cumberland, Maryland, I would be making $20,000 more. It's right across the river from West Virginia. I did my student teaching in West Virginia. People need to want to stay here. I mean, I moved here -- it's beautiful. These people are my family."

Melissa Whitener, ninth-grade science teacher

"It's a big problem when it costs more than you make to get health insurance, and I don't think our lawmakers really understand how serious we are, because they've just kind of been like, ah, they'll go away. I don't think we're gonna go away.

"Nobody expects to get rich when you're teaching. But when I graduated college, my thought was, 'you know what, I'm never going to get rich, but I'll have good benefits,' and that's not true anymore. So, at some point you've got to stop letting bullies run over you, and I think that's what we're doing now."

Becky Barth, third-grade math teacher

"In 1990 (during the last teachers' work stoppage), not all 55 counties were involved. It wasn't truly a statewide strike. It was a large portion of the state, but it wasn't everybody. ... But this time, I feel like it is. And I feel like we've got more younger people than we had in 1990 who just can't afford to raise their families on (the salary and benefits). So it's a big difference.

"I mean, there are similarities, but I feel like this time, there are more young people and it's everyone together. And it's not just teachers -- it's cooks and bus drivers and janitors -- it's everybody and I think the government's going to be foolish to try to ignore that many people."

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