Class Still Out in West Virginia

Photo Provided Teachers and service personnel from throughout West Virginia resumed protests at the state Capitol in Charleston Wednesday morning, the fifth day of a statewide work stoppage to protest low pay and benefits issues with the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

WHEELING — West Virginia union leaders advised striking teachers and service personnel to go back to school today, but Northern Panhandle administrators canceled all classes yet again.

School systems in Ohio, Brooke, Hancock, Marshall, Tyler and Wetzel counties canceled school Wednesday evening. They did so despite action earlier in the day by the House of Delegates to pass a 5 percent raise for teachers, service personnel and the West Virginia State Police, with additional raises for other state employees to be addressed in the coming days. The measure next moves on to the Senate.

Also on Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice issued an executive order calling for the establishment of a special task force to address employee concerns about rising costs with the state’s Public Employees Insurance Agency system. The moves were apparently not enough to gain the trust and confidence of many teachers and service personnel — especially in Ohio County, where Superintendent Kim Miller said she hoped today would bring clarity to the situation for union members.

“We polled 800 staff members today during meetings at Wheeling Park High School,” Miller said late Wednesday. “After speaking with them, the local union representatives and association members, we determined it would be in the best interests — and safety — of our students to not have school.”

“It is my feeling that our employees do not fully trust the legislative process right now, and we hope the promises made are fulfilled and that we can get back into class on Friday.”

Monday night, board of education members voted 3-2 to not dock the pay of employees missing days because of the work stoppage. Having a dock day prohibits the employee from receiving a $1,350 attendance incentive bonus.

Union Leaders Tell Members to Return

American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia President Christine Campbell, West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee, and West Virginia School Service Personnel Association President Joe White stood together at the State Capitol Wednesday night and advised their members to return to their schools.

They said the passage of the pay raise in the House, and Justice’s executive order establishing the PEIA task force, constituted “evidence in hand” that the state would keep their promises to the unions.

“We believe the best course of action is to return to school tomorrow, though we don’t believe everyone will,” Lee said.

Addressing his membership online, White told them if they didn’t return, an injunction forcing their return to the schools likely would be forthcoming.

“The last thing we want is legal action taken that could harm our members,” he said. “We are asking you to give your leadership time in our effort to get this (accomplished).”

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine issued a statement earlier on Wednesday stating, “My expectation is that all public schools in West Virginia will be in session on Thursday, March 1, 2018.”

Hancock County Superintendent Tim Woodward initially opted to call a two-hour delay, but an hour later, he found himself canceling school.

“I have no bus drivers, cooks or custodians,” he said. “They’re going against their union leadership.

“We’ll just have to see what happens tomorrow, and whether the Senate takes up the bill.”

Marshall County Schools had initially announced they would be opened, but officials closed later Wednesday night.

Found Money Leads to Pay Raise

Wednesday at the Legislature began with lawmakers awaiting official letters from Justice telling them he was raising revenue expectations for the year by about $58 million — enough to cover pay raises for all state employees he promised Tuesday.

The letters came to the chambers in the early afternoon, and indicated an increase of $58,170,000 over earlier general revenue fund estimates in January of $4,356,000,000. The general revenue fund is now expected to take in $4,414,170,000 this year, according to the figures from the Governor’s Office.

Justice had proposed a 3 percent raise for all state employees, with those in education-related jobs receiving an additional 2 percent to give them a 5 percent wage hike.

The House Finance Committee amended Houses Bill 4145 to instead give State Police, teachers and school employees all a 5 percent raise. Under the bill, teachers will receive a $2,020 salary increase, service personnel will receive $1,100 and State Police will receive $2,160.

The bill affects state employees whose salaries are directly set by code; raises for other state employees will be addressed in the fiscal 2019 budget bill, which will be considered in the coming days.

The measure passed the full House with a vote of 98-1. Delegate Saira Blair, R-Berkeley, was the only delegate to vote no. HB 4145 now moves on to the Senate.

Task Force To Start Soon

Justice said Wednesday his special PEIA task force would be in place this week, and include “educators and nothing but West Virginians.” This was a request made by teachers.

“That task force is being formed right now and will be appointed by the end of the week to address and explore all avenues that will lead to a permanent fix for PEIA,” Justice said in a released statement. “It is important that everyone understand that identifying all of the issues in our health care program and finding a solution takes time. A cure won’t come in 30 minutes, but I can promise you this task force will begin its work immediately.”

He suggests several possibilities be looked at as possible revenue sources for PEIA. Among these include additional severance taxes on oil and natural gas, gaming revenue from sports betting, tax dollars generated from road projects, continuing growth in the state’s economy and the possibility of putting the insurance out for competitive bids.

The union leaders said during their press conference the task force would include representatives of each of the unions, and would meet before March 14.

White told his members the task force may look at “doing away with PEIA and getting another system.” A 16-month moratorium on PEIA premiums is still in effect.

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