School Is Back in Session in West Virginia

Ohio County Teachers, Students Celebrate End of Strike

Photos by Scott McCloskey Above, Woodsdale Elementary School teachers’ aides, from left, Nancy Schell and Kathleen Stefanow, greet second-grader Alaina Spears as she shows her enthusiasm for returning to school this morning while exiting a school bus.

WHEELING — Students across West Virginia headed back to school this morning after Gov. Jim Justice signed a 5 percent pay raise for teachers and service personnel into law on Tuesday, ending the strike that led to nine straight class days being canceled.

Tuesday, West Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said funding for the pay raise will not come from the $58 million worth of additional revenue Justice previously said he would add to the budget. They, instead, will trim some general fund budget programs, with Medicaid and social services possibly seeing cuts.

“If the money does materialize, we will put back into areas we cut, such as Medicaid,” Armstead said of the $58 million Justice said his administration found by making new budget projections.

He added the Medicaid fund typically runs a surplus, and cutting its allocation wouldn’t prove to be a noticeable issue.

Carmichael said he expects the budget will be passed by the Legislature before the regular session concludes at midnight Saturday.

“This Legislature will be the first to deliver in that time frame in a long time,” he said.

Justice on Tuesday signed into law House Bill 4145, establishing a 5 percent pay increase for State Police, public school teachers and school service employees, effective July 1. A similar raise for all other state employees will be addressed by legislators as they continue to craft next year’s budget.

The approval of the 5 percent pay raise ended strike of nearly two weeks by the school employees which resulted in nine lost instructional days. By Tuesday afternoon, local educators were making plans for a return to the classroom today.

Though the strike by teachers and school employees was the longest in the state’s history, HB 4145 moved quickly through the Legislative process on Tuesday.

A conference committee meeting on House Bill 4145 Tuesday morning started more than an hour late, but began with an announcement from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley. He said the Senate would recede on its position calling for a 4 percent pay raise, and accept the 5 percent raise based on the condition the House would agree on further cuts to the general revenue budget.

Conference committee members signed the report, and both the House and Senate approved the measure by early afternoon. Justice signed the bill during a news conference on stage at the West Virginia State Theater.

Justice was asked if he thought there might be cuts to Medicaid and social services to offset the cost of the raises.

“There’s not a chance on this planet that will be the case,” he said. “We have cash ending balances in Medicaid that will absolutely backstop any cuts to Medicaid, and our people on Medicaid will not suffer in any way.”

The Medicaid fund had a cash surplus of $173 million last year, he said.

“In all honesty, we think a $10 million reduction to Medicaid is just prudent,” he said. “But if we need to, we have the cash balances in the coffers to cover it hands down.”

Justice said he sent a letter to State Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine directing him to work with county superintendents “to create flexibility” in finding ways to satisfy the academic calendar, and account for the nine missed school days.

He also announced the deadline for applying for a Promise Scholarship has been extended until March 30. The prior deadline had been March 1, but many students did not have access to their school guidance counselors to facilitate the applications, Justice said.

In addition to the pay raise, striking school employees also had expressed concerns about the increasing cost of premiums they pay for health care through the Public Employee Insurance Agency system.

Justice promised to announce the names of those appointed to a task force charged with addressing issue with PEIA by the end of Thursday.