Governor, teachers come to table for potential resolution to strike
The chant of “55 Strong” could be heard statewide as teachers in every West Virginia county participated in a work stoppage that began last Thursday. Hundreds of teachers and school service personnel traveled to the Capitol in Charleston, while their co-workers lined streets throughout their towns and cities to call for public support for increased wages and better insurance.
The teachers, supported by their unions, including the American Federation of Teachers – West Virginia, the West Virginia Education Association and West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, had reached their breaking point with regard to the increased cost of their health insurance through the Public Employee Insurance Agency.
The teachers’ and service personnel’s other concerns included finding a fair and equitable pay raise, removing seniority and charter school funds from legislative action and removing payroll protection.
Governor Jim Justice traveled around the state early this week to participate in public meetings with teachers and other citizens. At a meeting at Spring Mills High School, Justice told teachers the bill he signed, which gave a two percent increase this year with a one percent additional for the next two years, was all the state budget could handle.
“I believe that’s the best we can do right now,” he said.
However, after gathering with union leaders Tuesday in closed-door meetings, Justice announced a proposed five-percent increase for teachers and a three-percent for all other state employees.
“I was maybe not looking at this thing correctly,” Justice said, referring to the importance of teachers and state employees.
Justice indicated the increase he’s offering could be funded by an increase in oil and coal severance taxes. However, the House and Senate must vote on where the money will come from. Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said late Tuesday that he isn’t sure where that will be.
Justice also indicated that he’ll create a task force to look into the teachers’ PEIA concerns. A 17-month freeze was already approved to keep benefits at an even keel this coming fiscal year, although teachers say that isn’t enough to fix the problem.
In a written statement Tuesday evening, the WV School Service Personnel Association said, “This is a starting point in a long process. This gets us back to school to take care of our students before being ordered back with an injunction.
“Remember, we can call our members out at any time if progress is not made tomorrow,” meaning Wednesday, the statement continued. “If we feel we have been misled, then we will keep all 55 counties shut down.”
Many local teachers are looking forward to getting back to the classroom. Some returned to their protesting areas Wednesday, holding signs of thanks to show their appreciation for all the public support they received.
Wednesday was designated as a “cooling down” day by Justice, who left Tuesday afternoon’s meeting without answering questions posed by reporters about where he believes the funds will come from for the increase in pay. Legislators were wrestling with the issue on Wednesday morning as they also faced a “cross-over” day for the session.