Extra session looms on W.Va. schools as wary teachers watch

Incoming West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, right, and outgoing Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin embrace during the inauguration ceremony in Charleston, W.Va., Monday, Jan. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Walter Scriptunas II)

By ANTHONY IZAGUIRRE Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia is poised to return to the center stage of a national wave of teacher unrest as lawmakers go into overtime to debate pay raises and other measures that spurred strikes this year and last.
Union leaders and lawmakers started worrying Thursday that an upcoming special legislative session on education will renew efforts to create the state’s first charter schools as well as education savings accounts for parents to pay for schools.
“We’re very concerned that the special session will be a time they will try to include things that we did oppose,” said Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers branch in West Virginia.
Late Wednesday, Republican Gov. Jim Justice announced that he was calling a special session since lawmakers couldn’t come to a compromise over a 5 percent teacher raise. He promised the raise and has been lobbying lawmakers for it as a proposal languished in a Senate committee and during budget negotiations.
“I know our legislators, education community, and the people of West Virginia want our education system to be better and believe that our employees deserve a raise, so you have my word that we will get it done,” Justice wrote in a statement announcing the special session. He also said lawmakers will “go out and listen to teachers, parents, community leaders, and all those with a vested interest in making education better in West Virginia.”
It is unclear exactly when the legislature would return, and the governor’s office didn’t respond to messages seeking comment. But Republican leadership is signaling they could reconvene in late spring or early summer, which union leaders say might be a strategy to negate the impact of a third strike.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who has pushed hard for charter schools and education savings accounts, bristled at the thought of another strike over such measures.
“To shut schools down over that is ridiculous,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s the right way to go about threatening a legislature or the parents of West Virginia, with shutting the schools.”
Teachers in West Virginia took to the picket line last month over a complex education bill that tied their pay raise in with charters and the education savings accounts. The first draft of that bill offered in the Senate included a provision that would have required teachers to reaffirm their membership in teachers unions every year.
Educators protested outside schools and packed the state Capitol during the two-day walkout, arguing that the bill was retaliation for last year’s nine-day strike over pay raises and health insurance. The anti-union provision was removed, but the proposal eventually failed anyway.
Now, lawmakers who opposed the wide-ranging proposal said its proponents are getting a second chance at the measures that caused the strike.
“They didn’t get exactly what they wanted, they didn’t get much of what they wanted, so they’re going to hold the pay raises hostage to get people at the table,” said Sen. Roman Prezioso Jr., a Democrat.
The potential for uproar may place West Virginia in a familiar spotlight. Last year’s strike launched the national “Red4Ed” movement, which saw similar teacher mobilizations in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Washington state, and more recently, Los Angeles and Denver.
The unrest has carried over in Kentucky, where at least four districts were forced to close Thursday as hundreds of teachers called in sick to protest proposed legislation at the state Capitol. The closures marked the third time in the past week where districts in the state were forced to cancel classes because of teacher absences.
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee issued a statement Thursday saying “the level of mistrust between employees and select legislative leaders is at an all-time high,” adding that members still oppose charters and education savings accounts.
“To call a special session and revisit those ideas is a waste of taxpayer money and will lead to additional outrage from education employees,” he said. “As the governor has stated previously — we don’t need this food fight.”