Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

At the Pocahontas County Board of Education meeting Monday evening, emotions overflowed as the board discussed the current situation with the school employee work stoppage.

The work stoppage began February 22 and continues as school employees and other state employees wait for the West Virginia Legislature to pass bills to fix PEIA [Public Employee Insurance Agency], as well as approve a five percent pay raise bill.

Speaking in superintendent Terrance Beam’s stead, director of student services, special education and transportation, Ruth Bland spoke about the work stoppage and what it means for the county.

“This is quite a situation,” she said. “We are in our eighth day, [Tuesday] will be our ninth day. In 1990, it was eleven days. [Pocahontas County] went out for three days and there was quite a lot of upheaval during the whole time.”

Bland explained that in 1990, the schools were technically not out for 11 instructional days. It was calculated similar to a mining strike, which is consecutive work days.

If the current work stoppage was calculated like it was in 1990, it would technically be considered 12 or 13 days.

Board member Jessica Hefner said she is extremely concerned about the students – not just their education, but the way they will perceive the adults in charge of their education – due to the work stoppage.

“The kids are missing out,” she said. “I will tell you, I worry the most about these kids – about how they’re going to view all of us adults.”

Bland agreed that it is a difficult situation for the students to be brought into.

“It’s unfortunate,” she said. “It’s a shame that the arguments of adults are putting the futures of children at stake. I am hoping and praying that a solution comes quickly. I do have to say that there were school employees today that – we partook in a prayer circle to pray for the best results for everybody involved. We need as much divine guidance as anybody else in this situation.

“It is quite unprecedented to have fifty-five counties out all at the same time,” she continued. “It’s quite historic.”

Marlinton Middle School teacher and Pocahontas County AFT [American Federation of Teachers] representative Denise Sharp echoed the concerns and said she hopes to be back in the classroom as soon as possible.

Sharp said both the state AFT and WVEA [West Virginia Education Alliance] representatives told their members to go back to school.

“Our people told us, ‘no, we’re not going back,’ so that means now I’ve changed my stance and do what my people tell me to do,” Sharp said. “Had we went back, they would have stuck us with, I believe that 2, 1, 1, [raises two percent first year, one percent next year, one percent the year after that] and there is where we would have been. I know it seems crazy that we’re fighting over this little bit of money, but at some point, education in our country has got to start being valued again, not just considered a babysitting service or not just considered a place to put your kids for eight hours a day.

“I want us back in the classroom, too, just as much as everybody else wants us in the classroom,” she continued. “I didn’t want to tell my people we were going to stay out. I didn’t want to tell Mr. Beam and Mrs. Bland that we’re staying out, but right now, we’re in a situation that the Republicans in the Senate in Charleston are controlling it. They hold the cards. If they do what we have asked, we will go back to work tomorrow. If they don’t, then I don’t see any of us returning and it is totally fifty-five strong. There is not a county one out there wavering.”

While the teachers are not in the classrooms, there are some teachers who are offering tutoring services at the Community Wellness Center in Marlinton and the Green Bank Observatory to help students keep up on their studies.

“When we opened up over here [the Wellness Center], I thought that was a wonderful idea to go over here and invite students and stuff…” Sharp said.

“And I think that’s a good idea, too,” Hefner interjected, “however, I’m going to play devil’s advocate – that does send a mixed message to a lot of people. A lot of good people who do care about their kids [are asking] ‘why can I send them to the Wellness Center to learn and not school? I don’t know the answers. I’m just letting you all know that there are a lot more people out there who feel differently, too.”

At this time, Bland explained, it is a day-to-day and sometimes, hour-to-hour situation and until the Legislature takes action on the bills in question, there is not much the board office can do but wait.

At this time, we have to wait until the work stoppage is resolved and then we will take direction from the West Virginia Department of Education and the state superintendent,” Bland said.

In updates:

• U.S. Division of Forestry State Lands Manager Travis Miller addressed the board about a proposal for a right-of-way between the Pocahontas County High School property and Seneca State Forest land.

“We are requesting a right-of-way through property the board of education owns near the high school and Seneca State Forest,” Miller said. “We would use that existing road through the board’s property and be upgrading that to a gravel base, all weather access road. It would be a gated road, restricted access. The idea is, if we obtain a right-of-way, go through the property, then we would propose an access road on the state forest to access the Michael Mountain area for management purposes.”

Miller added that the forestry class would be given a key to access the area and signs would be posted that it is a restricted access area.

The project would also open up potential educational projects for the future, Miller said.

The board thanked Miller for his presentation and said the item would be placed on the next meeting’s agenda as a voting item.

In miscellaneous management, the board approved the following:

• Agreement between Pocahontas County Board of Education and Pocahontas County Parks and Recreation for the construction of an access trail on the Marlinton Elementary School property.

• P. Duane Gibson and Justin M. Kerr to transport 14 students by personal vehicle and rental vehicle to SkillsUSA competition in Fairmont on April 12 through 14. Trip to be paid for by vocational funds.

The next board meeting will be Monday, March 19, beginning with a hearing on the 2018-2019 school calendar at 5:30 p.m.,followed by the regular meeting.

Editor’s note:

Tuesday evening, March 6, Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill – approved by the house and senate – which will give teachers and school service personnel a five percent raise, beginning in July.

Schools in Pocahontas County will reopen Wednesday, March 7, weather permitting.

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com