Teachers, personnel head back to school; will receive 5 percent pay raise

Wood County Schools teachers and service personnel stand in front of Parkersburg South High School Tuesday. All return to work today after a nine-day, statewide walkout to protest low pay and rising insurance costs resulted in a 5 percent pay increase for all West Virginia public employees. (Photo by Michael Erb)

CHARLESTON — State leaders Tuesday announced a deal to end a statewide walkout of teachers and service personnel that has lasted for nine days.

Wood County and surrounding counties will resume classes today, ending the walkout which began Feb. 22. Wood County Schools Superintendent John Flint said teachers, service personnel and students were eager to get back to a sense of normal.

“It is imperative we return as quickly as possible to a sense of normal,” he said. “Teachers love to teach and they’re great at it. Our service personnel are great at their jobs. The students I think will be excited to be back, not just for the academics, but for the social interaction.”

Flint said he was delighted to be resuming classes.

“I’m elated we can get back to doing what we do best,” he said.

Franklin Elementary Center school nurse Melissa Tornabene stands along Blizzard Drive in south Parkersburg Tuesday holding a sign thanking the community for its support during a statewide walkout of teachers and service personnel which lasted nine days. (Photo by Michael Erb)

Greg Merritt, president of the Wood County American Federation of Teachers, said he and other local educators and service personnel were thrilled with Tuesday’s outcome and the chance to return to work today, as well as other public employees being included in the 5 percent raise.

“I am extremely pleased to know that public employees and members of the state police force will be receiving a pay raise and that all employees who rely on PEIA will see positive movement on that front,” he said. “I am thankful to the community for their support. The nine days spent on informational picket lines allowed positive interaction between employees and the community. People proved they care about public education and care about the working class.”

“We are excited about finally getting back to the classroom,” said Bruce Boston, president of the Wood County Education Association. “It is unfortunate it took this long. We want to thank the public for their support during all of this.”

The Legislative Conference Committee, comprised of members of both the House and Senate, agreed to the deal during a meeting Tuesday morning even as Gov. Jim Justice and legislative leaders took to the media to announce the deal.

The House approved passage of the 5 percent raise Tuesday with a 99-0 vote. The Senate also unanimously approved the raise, but not until after numerous Democratic and Republic senators traded jabs and argued about reasons HB 4151 took so long to approve.

Lubeck Elementary School kindergartner Remi Radcliff, 6, stands in front of Parkersburg South High School Tuesday holding the sign he made to support teachers during the more than week long walkout. Teachers and service personnel throughout the state will return to the classroom today. (Photo by Michael Erb)

Justice called a press conference Tuesday afternoon to sign the bill, gathering representatives of the Legislature as well as the heads of the West Virginia Education Association, West Virginia American Federation of Teachers, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.

“What a good day,” Justice said, calling the pay increase “an investment in West Virginia education.”

The deal allows for a 5 percent across-the-board raise for teachers, service personnel, police and other public employees. The actual amount of the raise varies by profession, but for teachers is a more than $2,000 increase.

The governor has established a task force to address issues with the state’s Public Employees Insurance Agency, or PEIA, did away with some planned changes to the program and froze premiums for the next 16 months.

Justice said Tuesday he was directing the state Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine to work with county-level superintendents to find flexibility in the required 180 days of instruction so that the days lost to the work stoppage do not extend the school year.

“Our children have suffered enough,” he said. “Families should and will have the time for their summer vacations.”

Republicans said the raises are being paid for through reductions in other programs and budget items. Republican leaders have expressed doubt Justice’s revised revenue numbers, which increased about $58 to pay for the 5 percent pay increase, will actually materialize.

During Tuesday’s floor session, Senate Democrats expressed concerns about which items were being reduced, including Medicaid, to fund the pay increase.

At the bill signing, Justice said he believed the $10 million reduction in Medicaid funding would not actually occur, as he believes his revenue figures will still cover the cost of the raise, and said the Medicaid fund has sufficient money to cover the funding reduction.

“We will not let our people in Medicaid suffer in any way,” Justice said. “No one needs to worry one instant about Medicaid cuts.”