PAW PAW, W.Va.— By midday on Monday, the weather was legitimately nice, and so the kids were all out on the side streets riding their bikes and shooting hoops.
Their teachers, meanwhile, were standing on the side of Henry W. Miller Highway, waving signs, imploring passers-by to honk in support.
The statewide teachers’ strike was in its twelfth and penultimate day, and students were missing their 8th day of classes. “I hope they end this thing,” said Chris Bohrer outside the Paw Paw Country store. “My son loves it,” he granted, referring to his high school senior.
Chris is the mailman. His brother, David Bohrer, is a custodian at the public school here in Paw Paw. The local American Legion Hall is the Harley Bohrer Post. This is to say Paw Paw is a small town. Its population is 508. The school has about 200 students, K-12. But it’s not merely another sparsely populated rural village. In some ways, it has a legitimate small-town feel.
“This is a strong community,” says one of the teachers. “Like a family,” says teacher Sharon Munson. Her husband, Doug, recently retired after 30 years as a bus driver — to an outpouring of affection from students and parents — but still works for the schools. Their daughter Michaela, in college now, was Miss Paw Paw 2016 in honor of her award-winning essay on the freedom of the speech.
The close bonds of community and family aren’t something you find everywhere in rural America, where opioids and economic collapse are demolishing communities, leading to shuttered churches, empty main streets, and broken families. Paw Paw isn’t immune to these problems, but family households and high school graduates are slightly more common here than the national average, and that's pretty good for West Virginia.
The teachers gushed about community support during the strike. “They’ve been feeding us every day,” said school teacher Chris Poniris. Paw Paw students have brought bag lunches to their teachers, and also delivered breakfast to the platoon of strikers standing on the side of the road.
“We’ve been getting free babysitting,” smiles Chris’s wife Shanna, who’s also a school teacher. A husband-wife pair of teachers isn’t uncommon in Paw Paw, Shanna says. Neither is it rare for Paw Paw kids to return as teachers.
“I had you as a student,” Mr. Palmer, the most elderly of the roadside strikers says, and then points at three of his colleagues. Mr. Palmer vouches that they were all good students. The Paw Paw teachers brag about the kids. Sharon Munson says she hears only good things from every teacher who fills in as a substitute at Paw Paw. “They love the culture.”
This is why Chris Poniris, class of 1991, moved back. “I took an $8,000 pay cut to come back,” he said. As a rule, West Virginia teachers are paid less than their colleagues elsewhere. That tension is acute here in Paw Paw, where Maryland is visible from the school.
“It’s sixteen thousand more over there,” one teacher says, pointing across the Potomac. West Virginia’s average teacher earns $45,000, according to the teachers’ unions. The unions were striking until they could get a 5 percent raise.
Everyone you talk to in Paw Paw supports the teachers. “They deserve it. I’m with the teachers,” Bohrer, the mailman says.
“I think the request is reasonable,” says Victor, who has lived in Paw Paw since he left the Soviet Union in 1978, and who sent his kids to the Paw Paw schools. (Victor, if the Census’ count is correct, is Paw Paw’s only immigrant.)
The whole fight doesn’t make sense from the vantage point of Paw Paw. You’ve got local lawmakers, local government officials, local parents, local taxpayers, local teachers, and local staff all on the same page. (Even if the students do want the strike to continue.)
Given the near-unanimity in Paw Paw, why can’t it get resolved?
Because this isn’t a matter of local control. The state sets teacher pay. The state is negotiating the deal. That means a handful of state senators can derail a school week for students across the state.
Local municipalities have very little say over teacher pay. Paw Paw’s teachers get about $2,000 a year extra through a special levy that local taxpayers fund, the teachers tell me. But more than 95 percent of their salary is set by the state.
So, in a community where people know their neighbors (both Chris Poniris and Victor identified me as a visitor by my unfamiliar car) and support their public schools, the teachers are reduced to striking for higher pay.
It’s a fruit of centralization. Similar to the United Auto Workers versus General Motors, the battle of teachers unions against state lawmakers is not fought on the human scale. Neither side will treat the other as anything other than adversaries.
Centralization is necessary to some extent. Especially in rural parts of the country, there’s a need for a larger tax base than a small town can provide. In a place like Paw Paw, you don’t want school funding to be at the mercy of a single store closing down and decimating revenues. A larger scale means more stability and some efficiencies.
But when 95 percent of the decisions are made far away by politicians, centralization becomes harmful. And that harm has now befallen the students of Paw Paw, even if they don't see it that way.
When news spread throughout the Main Street Diner that a deal had finally been struck on Tuesday night, one high school student was shocked.
“Way to dash my dreams,” she said.