Schools re-open after bill passes
School buses were rolling along West Virginia highways Wednesday morning as students headed back to school after a nine-day work stoppage that covered all 55 counties.
Teachers and service personnel had been on strike across the Mountain State since Feb. 22, as they sought a pay increase and a fix for PEIA, the state’s health insurance program.
Margaret Tice, a teacher at Jefferson High School, was in Charleston when the vote passed.
“It was exciting and emotional to be at the Capitol for the culmination of this historic movement,” Tice said. “As the announcement was made, we were cheering and crying and hugging strangers.”
The deal reached included a 5 percent pay increase, which Gov. Jim Justice had agreed to in initial meetings with teachers during the strike, as well as the creation of a task force to address issues with PEIA. The deal also put in place a freeze on the current insurance for the next 16 months to avoid the excessive increases planned by the insurance company. All other state employees also received a 5 percent increase.
Justice, who signed the bill into law as union representatives and members of the joint committee looked on, said, “We have reached a deal.”
Gov. Jim Justice proposed a 5 percent raise to teachers last week, a move that was approved by the House of Delegates. However, the Senate refused to pass the bill, instead recommending a 4 percent increase.
State legislators formed a conference committee and those members reached a deal, which they put before the House and Senate early in the week, to approve a 5 percent increase.
The House of Delegates voted 99-0 to reaffirm their earlier vote and the Senate followed suit, landing a bill for the Governor’s signature Tuesday afternoon.
Justice commented that he hopes that the deal would foster a new attitude toward West Virginia schools.
“Our voices need to be heard today, that we are making an investment,” he told those in attendance Wednesday.
Tice said she appreciated those involved in the work stoppage.
“I’ve never been more proud of my profession as we stood up, not for a few more dollars in our paychecks, but for the future of state and our students,” she said. “This is a step in making education a priority in West Virginia and in getting more qualified teachers to fill those unfilled positions.”