Whether teachers will return to class next week across West Virginia remained an open question Friday evening as school district leaders urged state Senate lawmakers to pass a teacher pay-raise bill and put an end to an ongoing strike.
On the seventh day of teacher walkouts in all 55 counties, Gov. Jim Justice told a group of superintendents that if the state Senate doesn’t act on his plan Saturday “we spiral off into no man’s land.”
“I’ve done everything other than body slam these people,” he said. “They got a lot to lose with a ‘no’ vote. They have nothing to lose with a ‘yes’ vote.”
Justice addressed the school administrators late Friday afternoon at the Capitol, where thousands of teachers and students returned to protest and fill statehouse galleries. The governor proposed a 5 percent pay raise for teachers Tuesday, a plan the House of Delegates passed almost unanimously the next day. Teachers were supposed to return to class Thursday after a “cooling off” day but instead assembled again chanting and holding signs proclaiming "55 strong."
The state Senate has been disinclined to move as swiftly on Justice’s proposal, which the governor has said would cost $58 million from increased 2018-19 revenue estimates.
State Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, told the superintendents in an earlier -- and sometimes tense -- exchange that the plan lacked details. It offered only a footnote saying the money would come from “anticipated road construction activity and from future bonds sales and positive feedback associated with federal tax reform,” Carmichael said. Earlier, state Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, decided against discussing the plan in committee Friday, saying he also needed more information. The state Senate could discuss the bill Saturday, but it is not on the agenda.
“Rather than provide thoughtful analysis and review of such an enormous investment of taxpayer dollars, we’re being pressured to forego all the normal processes that we would utilize to review a $60 million investment to the taxpayers of West Virginia,” Carmichael said. “To me that just smacks of irresponsibility.”
“We received no definitive information from the governor’s office that tells us exactly where those revenue projections are coming from upon which we can base reliable evaluation,” added state Sen. Gregory Boso, R-Nicholas.
But the superintendents said they don’t have time to wait, especially as school systems have shifted to a social service provider role.
“We educate, we give them food, we give them social needs, mental needs, psychological needs. Our teachers really feel underappreciated,” said Doug Lambert, Grant County superintendent.
Superintendents stressed that teachers would return to school with passage of the 5 percent raise and a pledge to form a task force seeking solutions to a public employee health insurance program that teachers say is broken. Monongalia County teacher Jeff Garvin assured Carmichael that teachers “want to be back in the classroom” -- and will return with those assurances.
“If there was a flood in this state, it would be a crisis. This is a crisis, it needs to be addressed. Five percent is not a lot of money, but it could offset the PEIA that could potentially deplete us in the future,” Garvin said.
If passed, the bill would include 5 percent raises for state police and school service personnel and would supersede a law recently signed by Gov. Justice. (That law called for 4 percent raises over three years for teachers and 2 percent raises this year, and 1 percent next year, for troopers and service personnel.)
Justice refused to talk to reporters after his meeting with superintendents. But in explaining his reasoning behind the 5 percent pay raise idea, he said he “started running numbers” repeatedly, then considered the state’s revenue projections.
“I really believe those ideas come from the good Lord, I really do. Because I didn’t know what to do.” He called the unions next. “Maybe I was looking at this a little bit wrong,” he said he told them, “but now I’m looking at it right.”
“What I wish [senators] would've done was just said, ‘OK, Governor, we’re with you, you raised the revenue, and if, at the end of the day, it blows up, you own it. And I would've said, that’s my job,” he said.
West Virginia teachers were last in the classroom Feb. 21. The work stoppage centered on demands for higher pay and for an overhaul of the health insurance program for public employees. Justice said he’d put together a task force to study possible fixes to PEIA. Superintendents asked for a spot on the volunteer team, whose members are expected to be appointed by Monday. The first meeting is set for March 13.
The PEIA finance board last week agreed to freeze proposed changes to the plan that would call for increases to premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs until July 2019.
Beyond the Capitol, the strain is mounting for some families. Brandy Sheppard, a paralegal at the Mingo County public defender’s office, said her mother has gone from watching her kids for an hour a day to eight hours a day during the strike.
“It is hard on her,” she said. But “I understand why the teachers are on strike, and I am with them 100 percent. They deserve to get what they’re asking for.”