Picket is possible at Schools for the Deaf and Blind

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By Marla Pisciotta

For The State Journal

A second meeting within as many weeks was hosted by child care workers and union representatives to discuss their fate as employees of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind in Romney.

A recommendation to change the job designation from "child care workers" to "residential care specialist" was presented to the West Virginia Board of Education March 12 by WVSDB superintendent Lynn Boyer. The recommendation was approved by the board.

The transition in job title proposes that the auxiliary personnel position of child care worker — the employees who work in the dorms with the residential students during their non-instructional time — be changed to residential care specialists.

The new position of residential care specialist will require an Associate of Arts (AA) degree in child development, psychology, social work or a related field or a written commitment to obtain the degree at personal expense within three years of the date of hire.

Boyer said the focus at WVSDB is to improve the quality of the total experience the student has at the schools.

Anita Mitter is an organizational development specialist with the West Virginia Education Association.

"This meeting was a work session because the child care workers have a lot ahead of them," Mitter said. "They are facing the possible loss of their jobs."

Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire, attended the second meeting.

 "My hope is that something can be accomplished peacefully not only for the children but to keep the schools," Rowan said.

Rowan said she was saddened to see one of the child care workers leave the meeting in tears.

Mitter said the workers wrote concerns and questions on note cards that would be presented to Boyer.

"I spoke to Dr. Boyer and she seems open to discussion," Mitter said.

Mitter will be meeting with Boyer to discuss the issues concerning the child care workers.

"I want to see if there is any wiggle room and if we can come to agree on certain things," Mitter said.

Mitter said on behalf of the workers she hopes to be able to reach a common ground.

"Our main concern is protecting the child care workers currently employed and find a way to work in to the new positions," Mitter said. "We would like for them to have priority on positions available."

Rowan said she offered to go with Mitter and several child care workers when they meet with Boyer.

"I'm friends with the house parents and have worked with Dr. Boyer," Rowan said. "I see both sides."

In the meantime, the workers have begun circulating petitions asking for signatures in support of child care workers being given priority for the new residential care specialist positions.

The petition states: "The current child care workers will be in their positions through June 30, 2015. At that time their current jobs will be phased out. A new position of residential care specialists will be created and the child care workers are not guaranteed any of those new positions."

The workers also made picket signs during their most recent meeting.

Mitter said if no agreement could be reached, the workers soon would be picketing the schools.

Boyer said during the next 15 months support will be offered by Eastern West Virginia Community and Technological College of Moorefield to help child care workers earn the required Associate Degree (AA).

The WVSDB's administration maintains that a continuing education is essential for students after they leave class and are back in their dorm rooms.

There are 35 child care workers who work in the dorms with residential students during non-instructional time from 3:30 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Some workers have been at the schools for more than two decades and others only a few years.

Sen. Donald H. Cookman, D-Hampshire, said, in his opinion, the current child care workers should receive priority over others interviewing for their jobs after they have received their degrees.

"Why should a person that has been in a position for decades have to apply for something they have been doing for years?" Cookman said.

Boyer said all child care workers have been asked to earn an AA degree and each of them will receive an $8,000 increase in their annual salary after they take the class, obtain the degrees and are hired.

"That salary (increase) will begin to be seen in the first paycheck," Boyer said.

Another flier handed out at the recent Friday meeting indicated that the restructuring and redesigning of the residential care staff will mean the current jobs are being phased out by June 30, 2015, so workers will have three years to complete their degrees. Classes will begin this summer.

All the workers will be assessed for their levels of math and English education and they will be put in courses at Eastern CTC to earn the AA degree.

Deb Backus, division chair of general education at Eastern said she understands why the workers are upset, but she said, "We are going to work with each of them."

Estimated cost for each worker to earn the AA degree is $4,300, plus the cost of books.  Some financial help may be available.

In the meantime, the union and the child care workers will be holding meetings to try to come to some sort of agreement that will secure their jobs.

"We are concerned and are trying to find some job security for these people," Mitter said. "That is all they want."