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Teachers return to Capitol steps for rally

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CHARLESTON — The unions for teachers and school service personnel held several unity rallies across the state Sunday afternoon, hoping to reignite the passion seen during last spring's strike.

At the Charleston rally, held on the steps of the Capitol building, teachers hoped to send lawmakers one message — "We're back."

"So here we are, still, watching our colleagues or our mentors leave this state or leave this profession," said Christine Campbell, president of the state's branch of the American Federation of Teachers. "We continue to see more children coming to school hungry, without enough care and support to meet their needs. As public servants, we endlessly endure these constant changes, increasing mandates and our voices being ignored by politicians who have no idea what we do every single day."

That message — "We're back" — was repeated throughout the more than hour-long rally. It could be seen on t-shirts and written across poster boards.

Campbell and other rally leaders encouraged teachers in attendance to vote wisely in the November election. Leaders pointed to the case of Sen. Robert Karnes, a Republican from Upshur County. Teachers have claimed credit for making him lose his primary re-election bid after some comments he made earlier in the year.

"The strike was the epitome of collection action for the greater good," Campbell said.

Much of Sunday's rally in Charleston focused on the health insurance of teachers and all other state employees. During the strike, teachers pushed for not only a raise to their salaries, but also for improvements to their plans from the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

In response to the strike, Gov. Jim Justice appointed a 29-member task force to fix PEIA. That task force, which has regularly met throughout the summer, has not made any final recommendations for what should be done.

"To be honest with you, the pace of work in these subcommittees is very disheartening," said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, another teachers union. 

Lee said several different subcommittee meetings have been cancelled recently. He also criticized efforts that Justice said he is taking to come up with his own PEIA fix outside of the work of the task force. Lee said Justice's fix would probably be to privatize PEIA and that he would not find that acceptable.

"Folks, let's make this clear: Privatization is not the answer to PEIA," Lee said. "Funding PEIA is the answer, and its time for them to take action and fund the plan like they're suppose to."

Teachers have frequently called for an increase to the severance tax on natural gas. Republican lawmakers have pushed back on that idea, saying that natural gas severance taxes are too volatile for PEIA to be totally dependent upon.

The task force is required to submit a final report prior to a series of interim committee meetings of the Legislature in December.