Teachers to continue walkout over pay, benefits

By John Raby - Associated Press

CHARLESTON (AP) — West Virginia teachers will continue their walking into next week, the latest response to what’s quickly becoming a deepening rift with the governor and Legislature over pay and health benefits.

Thousands of teachers and school service workers in all 55 counties will remain off the job Monday, union leaders announced at a news conference Friday afternoon.

“It is clear that education employees are not satisfied with the inaction of legislative leadership or the governor to date,” according to a joint statement from the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers’ West Virginia chapter, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association. “Our members have spoken and the Legislature has not.”

A loud cheer echoed through the halls of the Capitol from teachers listening to a live feed from the news conference on their mobile phones.

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said county school superintendents are being asked to keep schools closed for a third day because the teachers will return to Charleston. The walkout that was in its second day Friday already has drawn large crowds each day.

A state Department of Education spokeswoman declined comment. State Schools Superintendent Steve Paine has said the work stoppage is illegal and disruptive to student learning.

Missed class time is automatically added to the end of the school year.

“This is not an easy decision to make,” Lee said. “But it’s a decision that our members in every county gave us the authorization to make.”

Gov. Jim Justice has signed teacher pay raises of 2 percent next year and 1 percent the following two years. But teachers, who rank 48th in the nation in pay, have said the increases are too stingy. They also complain about projected increases in health insurance costs.

The Public Employees Insurance Agency, a state entity that administers health care programs for public workers, including teachers, has agreed to freeze health insurance premiums and rates for the next fiscal year for state workers.

The House of Delegates has passed separate legislation to transfer $29 million from the state’s rainy day fund to freeze those rates and to apply 20 percent of future general fund surpluses toward a separate fund aimed at stabilizing the employees’ insurance agency. Both bills are now pending in the state Senate.

Teachers are worried the proposed solution is only temporary or worse, especially if the state surplus turns out to be minimal.

Earlier Friday, Senate President Mitch Carmichael addressed the Capitol crowd briefly, telling them that “your points are well made. You have every right to make them and we hear you. We’re taking steps to address your issues.”

The crowd quickly interrupted him with chants, and he thanked them and left.

Before the Senate adjourned for the day, Greenbrier County Democrat Stephen Baldwin said he understands that tensions have been high and that “there’s a sense that trust has been broken over the years. But I believe we’re in a pivotal moment where that trust can be repaired now if we show each other some respect and we show each other some human decency.”

Jack Cullen, superintendent of Mason County Schools, said as of 4:30 p.m. Friday that he had not made the call as to whether schools will be closed, but said it will be decided during the weekend. Cullen indicated he was awaiting the outcome of a meeting between local union representatives on Saturday (today) before making the final call.

Associated Press writer Michael Virtanen in Morgantown contributed to this report as did staff with Ohio Valley Publishing.


By John Raby

Associated Press