West Virginia leaders reach deal to end teachers strike
By JOHN RABY, Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Gov. Jim Justice and West Virginia’s Republican leaders tentatively agreed Tuesday to end the state’s nine-day teachers’ walkout by giving 5 percent raises to not just teachers, but all state workers.
To pay for it, lawmakers will seek to cut state spending by $20 million, taking funds from general services and Medicaid, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair said.
“We have reached a deal,” Justice tweeted. “I stood rock solid on the 5% Teacher pay raise and delivered. Not only this, but my staff and I made additional cuts which will give all State employees 5% as well. All the focus should have always been on fairness and getting the kids back in school.”
The governor, union leaders and the House of Delegates had agreed last week to the 5 percent pay raise for teachers, who are among the lowest paid in the nation and haven’t had a salary increase in four years. But the Senate refused to go along, approving a 4 percent increase.
Some teachers cheered in the hallways of the Capitol after the governor tweeted the news. Others waiting inside the meeting room indicated that they’re wary of getting excited until House and Senate majorities approve the deal.
“We’ve been down this road before,” West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said. “The winners in this are the students of West Virginia and the educators across West Virginia who finally see a true investment in education.”
The union’s spokeswoman, Kym Randolph, said that if lawmakers quickly pass the legislation as they said Tuesday they intend to, teachers could be back at work Wednesday. “We just need to see it in writing,” she said.
Senate leaders said they’re on board this time. Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said talks with the governor’s office lasted into early Tuesday identifying cuts everyone could agree to.
“These are deep cuts,” Blair said. “This has been the fiscally responsible thing to do, in my opinion, to get us to the point we’re at today.”
Justice said additional budget cuts by his staff will fund the raises. Blair said that if the governor’s estimates of increased revenue estimates from Justice come to fruition, supplemental appropriations could take place.
“This is very positive,” said Tina Workman, a second-grade teacher from Midland Trail Elementary in Kanawha County who has been at the Capitol each day with other striking teachers. “We are surprised, but we aren’t putting all of our eggs from the chickens in one basket. We want it signed, sealed and delivered. Because seven days ago we were told the same thing, and we’re still here.”
A show of support by thousands of teachers and supporters on Monday didn’t sway lawmakers in time to avoid a ninth day of cancelled classes for the school system’s 277,000 students and 35,000 employees.
Ferns said late Monday after a House-Senate conference committee worked for a compromise that Senate Republicans were concerned more about how the raise is paid for than the exact amount.
Blair, R-Berkeley, and Ferns hade been skeptical about the legitimacy of revised, higher revenue figures Justice cited to support the higher pay raises. Blair suggested at one point that schools reopen while the Legislature tries to work on the bills, prompting groans from the audience.
The Capitol was briefly closed as well on Monday after 5,000 people entered the building, posing security concerns. It was reopened an hour later, and teachers vented their frustration over the lack of progress. Their strike, in one of the poorest states in the country, has disrupted lives across the state, forcing working parents to scramble for child care and putting children who rely on meals at school at risk of going hungry.
With 17.9 percent of West Virginians living below official poverty levels, teachers, bus drivers and other volunteers are collecting food for students who rely on free breakfasts and lunches. Teachers also are sharing stories of donating their time, money or food. At least two GoFundMe pages have been launched in support of the walkout.
“It does make you feel good because we are helping them,” said Ann Osburn, a special education teacher at Buckhannon Academy. “I think we’re reaching as many as we can.”
Rachel Stringer, a stay-at-home mom from Cross Lanes, said her biggest challenge is making sure her children don’t forget what they’ve learned this school year. Despite the long layoff, Stringer supports the teachers.
“They deserve to be paid,” she said. “They deserve to be able to have insurance.”
Many teachers said they’d rather be in the classroom, but believe they’ve come too far to back down.
“We feel like we’re under attack constantly,” said Cody Thompson, a social studies and civics teacher at Elkins High School. “Eventually, whenever you’re pushed into a corner, you’ve got to push back.”
The teacher walkout over pay and benefits began on Feb. 22 after the governor signed a 2 percent pay raise for next year. He reconsidered after an initial round of protests, and the House of Delegates later approved a 5 percent increase. The Senate’s insistence on a 4 percent raise Saturday prompted the union to extend the strike.
Many teachers already have side jobs to make ends meet. Kristie Skidmore, an elementary school reading specialist, has a clothing shop at her home.
“You’re looking at people here who every day care about other people, other families. People’s kids,” Skidmore said. “Now we’re forced to be able to figure out how to care for our own families.”