Some progress made in effort to end in West Virginia teacher strike

Some small strides were made Monday in the effort to end the work stoppage by West Virginia’s public school teachers and staff who are demanding higher pay and better benefits, according to the head of the state’s largest teacher organization.

“We had a meeting with House and Senate leadership this morning, making some progress,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, one of the three bodies representing teachers and service staff.

He did not elaborate on the nature of the progress.

Teachers and school service employees first hit the picket lines Thursday in all of the state’s 55 counties to demand better pay and benefits. Monday was the third day schools were closed.

Legislation sparked strike

The walk-out came after Gov. Jim Justice signed legislation late Wednesday night granting teachers a 2% pay increase starting in July, followed by 1% pay increases over the next two years.

“We need to keep our kids and teachers in the classroom,” Justice said in a statement after signing the pay raise bill. “We certainly recognize our teachers are underpaid and this is a step in the right direction to addressing their pay issue.”

But the bill did not address further concerns of teachers, including issues with the teachers’ public employees insurance program, the rising costs of health care and a tax on payroll deduction options, according to Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, the other union representing teachers.

Speaking Monday to teachers and other school personnel at Wheeling Park High School, Justice said that teachers were “swimming upstream” in their attempts to demand higher pay.

“I would tell you that if you look at the numbers and you were me — and I look at them all the time — doing any more than what has been done with your pay raise today, you’re not going to like this, but it would not be the smart thing to do. It would absolutely be from a financial standpoint a very, very, very dumb move,” he said.

“I would tell you, you need to be back in the classroom. Our kids need to be back in the classroom,” he said.

Justice said he’s aware that teachers are under-appreciated and that this was a “challenging time” for them.

“I apologize for the fact that you’ve been forgotten in a lot of ways but you’re never forgotten with me,” he said. The governor said he would convene a task force to look more at the issues they raised.

Justice also spoke about the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA). Many people in West Virginia tell CNN that the high health insurance costs they face are the main sticking point in the work stoppage. That insurance affects all state employees.

“There is no humanly way” to address means to fix PEIA in a regular legislative session, Justice said on Monday.

He said he would call a special session of the legislature, which would address a natural gas tax that could help better fund PEIA. He said he hoped suggestions for solutions would come out of the session by May — a proposal that was met with laughter from the audience.

Union leaders plan to respond to the governor’s remarks later on Monday. The West Virginia School Service Personnel Association is representing the school service staff.

Not much progress occurred over what was a tense weekend.

Representatives for the state and the teachers did not meet Saturday and Sunday to work on hammering out a solution, Campbell said.

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Dr. Steven Paine said local superintendents met on Sunday to discuss the work stoppage and the possibility of legal action, which could involve an injunction.

Teachers held a candlelight vigil at the steps of the state capitol in Charleston Sunday night, and planned to go inside the capitol on Monday to stage protests, as they did last week.

“You know, as a professional degreed teacher, working two jobs, I qualify for WIC and food stamps,” said Jacob Fertig, an art teacher at Riverside High School in Belle, in Kanawha County. WIC is the Women, Infants and Children food and nutrition service, a federal program. He spoke to CNN at the Sunday night vigil.

“We collected on the WIC, so that’s how low teacher pay is. There were a lot of times where we got to choose between groceries and health coverage for my family. This isn’t just an issue of a bunch of people squabbling over a little bit of insurance benefits or a little bit of pay — we are really in a bad place here as far as that stuff goes.”

The pay raise adopted last week, which amounts to 4% over the next few years, is a reduction from an earlier version of the bill that proposed a 5% total increase in wages, Campbell said, noting that teachers in surrounding states make anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 more than teachers in West Virginia.

The state employs nearly 20,000 classroom teachers in its public schools and has more than 277,000 students enrolled, according to Alyssa Keedy of the West Virginia Department of Education.

While their teachers are picketing, students are getting some support in their communities.

Teachers’ unions organized educators and service staff members to work with food pantries to send children home with extra food in advance of the school closures. Some community centers and churches are also hosting programs for students so working parents don’t have to stay home.

Teachers walked out before, in 1990, and that strike lasted 11 days.