West Virginia Public Schools Closed For 7th Day As Teachers Fight For Pay Raises

The Washington Post/The Washington Post

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Many West Virginia public school students were at loose ends again Friday, with their classrooms closed for a seventh straight class day as teachers fought for pay raises.

The state Senate’s Republican majority refused Thursday to take up legislation to give them a 5 percent pay raise after four years without one. The Republican-controlled House passed it 98-1 on Wednesday night.

According to union officials, members were upset by the Senate and its leader’s comments and would stay out of work.

By Thursday evening, the Department of Education said public schools in all 55 counties remained shuttered.

The statewide strike over low pay and rising insurance costs had been expected to end Thursday under a deal negotiated between Gov. Jim Justice and teachers union leaders. It included the proposal of 5 percent raises and the appointment of a task force to find a long-term state funding source to offset public workers’ rising health care costs.

However, the Senate voted 20-14 to send the legislation with raises to its Finance Committee instead of quickly voting on it as the House did the night before. All but one of the Senate’s majority Republicans voted against holding an immediate floor vote.

Outside the Senate chamber, hundreds of teachers chanted, “Pass that bill!”

“We don’t trust the Senate,” said Jacob Staggers, a sixth-grade teacher at South Middle School in Morgantown.

Sen. Craig Blair, a Martinsburg Republican, announced on the floor Thursday afternoon that the Finance Committee he chairs would meet Friday to consider budget legislation for the coming fiscal year and other bills.

“That budget will also have to have whatever we do for pay raises … and all the other host of things that we need to be able to manage,” Blair said. “I don’t like feeling bullied into when we’re going to do something.”

Del. Saira Blair, his daughter, had been the sole ‘no’ vote in the House. She told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that legislators had already passed a fiscally responsible pay raise package and the higher proposed raise was a political ploy.

The raise Justice announced Tuesday night for the fiscal year starting July 1 is a more generous offer than a pay raise bill he signed less than a week earlier with 2 percent raises. The teachers haven’t had a raise for four years.

West Virginia teachers and service personnel, noting that they were among the lowest paid in the country, walked off the job Feb. 22. The governor said a projected $58 million increase in state revenues during that fiscal year would cover the higher raises.

Sen. John Unger, a Martinsburg Democrat, said it was the Senate’s fault the walkout would continue Friday. He’d heard rumblings that opponents of the settlement were delaying to create a divide and turn parents against teachers. “I hope that’s not the intention,” he said.

Justice had announced he’s forming a task force to find a solution to rising costs in the insurance plan covering West Virginia teachers and other public workers through the Public Employees Insurance Agency, or PEIA. The PEIA board has agreed to freeze rates in the coming year.

Staggers said teachers want to know the task force’s makeup and expectations “because our insurance is what sent us out of the classroom.”

Senate President Mitch Carmichael said sustainably funding the insurance is “paramount.” In the Senate plan, the revenue surplus the governor identified would be dedicated to insurance costs and would benefit all public employees and retirees, he said.

All 100 seats in the House are up for election this year, along with half the 34 seats in the Senate. Teachers have promised to pay close attention to each lawmaker’s actions and vote accordingly.

Those include 10 Senate seats held by Republicans seeking re-election, five held by Democrats and two where incumbent Republicans aren’t running.