West Virginia Teacher Strike Continues As No Deal Is Reached

Striking teachers and school service personnel picket outside Triadelphia Middle School in Wheeling on Monday. Photo by Scott McCloskey

WHEELING — Negotiations regarding how much of a raise West Virginia’s teachers and service personnel get will continue this morning, while the Mountain State’s public school students will miss a ninth straight day of class because of the strike.

Monday began with Northern Panhandle teachers hitting the streets once again to protest what they consider low pay and expensive health care. Meanwhile, hundreds of teachers and school employees entered the state Capitol in Charleston to take their fight to the Legislature.

None of this seemed to impress Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, however.

“I believe the superintendents and the teachers should go back to the classroom, now, and go back to work,” he said while speaking in Charleston, words which quickly resulted in groans from striking school employees assembled at the Capitol.

“We know how the process works. (The approved pay raise) will be a derivative of between 4 and 5 percent.”

During the weekend, Senate members passed a 4 percent wage increase for school personnel and all state employees. House members on the conference committee, however, indicated the House would stand strong on its position to give state police troopers and school employees 5-percent raises.

Late Monday, Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said the Senate offered the House a compromise on the matter. He is co-chairman of the conference committee on House Bill 4145.

Ferns offered no additional information, adding that House members had yet to consider the proposal. Attempts to reach Ferns for comment by phone and text message were unsuccessful late Monday.

The conference committee is slated to meet again at 9 a.m. today.

Monday, Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, said he had wanted to stay into the night to achieve a resolution on HB 4145, but said he was willing to give the matter until this morning.

“I have a firm feeling as to where caucus is — the sentiment hasn’t changed,” Anderson said. “We support the bill sent to the Senate.”

“The earlier we can put this together and get it signed the better,” he added. “The superintendents are waiting for us so they can make a decision on whether to have school. We simply must reach a conclusion to this impasse.”

Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, co-chairman of the committee, said he would take any proposal to the House GOP caucus.

“But our position is pretty clear,” he said. The House believes the best opportunity is to resolve the pay raise measure is the 5 percent version of HB 4145, according to Espinosa.

Espinosa and Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, both spoke on the urgency of passing the measure. Once the committee signs off on an agreement, the House and Senate must wait 24 hours before taking action on it.

Students already have missed nine consecutive instructional days, and a delay in approving the agreement could prolong the current walkout by teachers and school service employees even more, they said.

“I don’t know what is transpiring behind the scenes with the leadership in the majority parties,” Boggs said. “I do know this needs to be resolved as quickly as possible.”

Ferns expressed concern after learning on Monday that bond rating companies — alarmed by the current teacher strike in West Virginia — have begun calling the governor’s office seeking information.

Mike Hall, chief of staff for Gov. Jim Justice, addressed the committee Monday afternoon, and confirmed Standard and Poor’s and other bond rating companies have contacted the office. He said the companies were pleased the state’s rainy day fund presently stands at about 16.8 percent based on revenue. Most states set their rainy day amounts at 5 percent, according to Hall.

Credit rating companies also are pleased that West Virginia’s governor has the authority to curtail the state’s spending without approval from the legislature, he said.

“They see that cash. They see we’ve been fiscally responsible, that it is there, and it gives them comfort,” Hall said.

Blair asked him if the companies had questioned the office after last week when they raised the projected revenues for the state this year by $58 million.

He called this a “knee-jerk reaction” by the governor to appease the striking teachers that was “suspect.”

“That’s where the Senate has a problem,” Blair said. He asked if the governor had planned to raise the numbers prior to the teacher strike.

Hall said finances are among the governor’s strengths.

“He knows numbers,” Hall said. “Why didn’t he do it? Looking back, I think he wished he did.”

Early Monday, Ohio County Board of Education members convened for yet another special meeting.

“We are hoping to get to a resolution,” Superintendent Kim Miller said Monday. “It’s changing minute-by-minute, and we are doing our best to provide parents and students with as much information as we can, as quickly as possible.”

Much of the concern expressed by parents during the meeting pertained to the school calendar, and if graduation dates would have to be changed. They also had questions about the continuation of extra-curricular activities.

“Our students will make up the academic minutes,” Miller said. “And we are concerned about those extracurricular things that are taking place. Initially, it was decided among the superintendents that only one-time events would take place. That’s when we truly believed this would come to an end in a short amount of time. We know this is dragging on longer, and we’re constantly evaluating what is going on in our county, as well as what is going on in our state.”

She called events surrounding the work-stoppage an “an unchartered time” for everyone.

“We’re trying to make decisions and move forward as peacefully, and as in support of our students as we can,” she said.

Days for seniors are being evaluated on a daily basis, and teachers have reached out to help advanced placement students studying for testing, according to Miller.

One parent who addressed the board, Betsy Delk, called the teachers in Ohio County “excellent,” and said that’s why she wanted them to be back in school. She expressed concerns about graduating seniors, and whether advanced placement students were getting the assistance they need. She also questioned why some extracurricular events were allowed to continue, while other have not been.

West, meanwhile, urged the board to move forward with an injunction requiring striking employees to return to the schools. She also suggested teacher pay be based on merit and not tenure. This she said would help West Virginia move from near-the-bottom in education indicators.

Teachersá wages in West Virginia, meanwhile, are 49th among the states.

âPay coincides with product,ã West said.

The majority of the speakers spoke out in favor of the teachers, while praising them and encouraging them to continue on in their fight. They pointed out the positive effect they are having on the community, and commended them for teaching children to stand up and speak out where there is injustice,.

Some religious leaders also called on prayer for all those involved.

Among those speaking were Kerri Crews, the Rev. Ralph Dunkin, Matt Heusel, Meagan Kirchner, Jason Wade, Stacy Russell, Kate Marshall, Noah Marshall, Nikki Kiger and the Rev. Sean Smith.