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West Virginia Teachers Take Pay Fight to Charleston

West Virginia Legislative Photography, Photo by Will Price West Virginia Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, speaks during a session at the State Capitol in Charleston.

WHEELING — West Virginia Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said he believes public school teacher unions are making a play for more taxpayer dollars — and has no plans to buckle in the face of their statewide strike threats.

“The teachers and their unions are threatening to strike and are making a threat to lock schools down and leave students in the cold. As a Legislature, we are not willing to respond to that,” Ferns said Friday.

Ferns responded after angry West Virginia teachers descended on the Legislature Friday, with some of the educators becoming vocal after a session in which a motion to force Senate leaders to address the measure was defeated.

“There wasn’t any rioting. They were professionals, and they came down to see we’re doing our job,” Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said of the educators.

The teachers are discussing the possibility of a statewide walkout, asserting proposed pay raises for them are inadequate. They also want a permanent fix to the rising Public Employees Insurance Agency premiums they pay for health care.

Teachers are set to rally at 1 p.m. today outside the State Capitol, and they began arriving in Charleston on Friday. Some made showings in the Legislature galleries, while others with signs gathered outside the chambers in the rotunda.

They saw the mood at the Legislature intensify Friday over Senate Bill 267, a measure giving teachers, public school employees and state police pay raises.

The House version — approved Monday — gives teachers a 2 percent raise next in 2019, and a 1 percent raise the next three years for a total of 5 percent over a four-year period. The Senate bill, meanwhile, provides a 1 percent raise for each of the next five years, also totaling 5 percent for the teachers.

The House measure was returned Tuesday to the Senate for action, and it was assigned Thursday to the Rules Committee pending further consideration.

On Friday, Prezioso, made a motion that the SB 267 be discharged from committee and addressed by the Senate.

The motion was defeated, with 12 members voting in favor, and 21 against. Among those voting “no” were Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio; Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel; and Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke. Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, was absent for the vote.

Prezioso said he and Democrats don’t know why the legislation remains in the Rules Committee, calling it “highly unusual.”

“In all my years here, I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “I decided something had to be done. The motion was rejected, and all the requests for debate were rejected.”

Typically, the Senate would either vote to accept the House changes, amend the bill, or send it to a conference committee.

The Senate moved on to consider other bills, but abruptly adjourned after it seemed lingering tensions among lawmakers were preventing further action. Teachers in the gallery and in the hallway responded with chants that they would strike, and vote out the lawmakers this year.

“The teachers in the gallery were well-behaved,” Prezioso said. “Those in the hall were doing the chants.”

Prezioso suggested the bill at least be assigned to the Senate Finance Committee, where those with financial knowledge could work out a deal with the House.

Ferns said Senate leadership has been working with the House since Tuesday to achieve an agreement on the bill.

“This shouldn’t be something that we just pass back,” he said. “We’re giving ourselves time to evaluate it, and two or three days is not a great deal of time.”

He said the bill will be addressed by the Senate “in the near future,” and there’s a possibility a conference committee won’t be needed.

“If something we know the House will accept can be achieved, we can amend and send it back,” Ferns said. “There’s nothing that precludes us from communicating about it with the House.”

Ferns said the pay raise for the state doesn’t actually equal 5 percent for the state, but has been determined to mean as much as a 13 percent increase in cost to West Virginia taxpayers.

“The union bosses have attempted to make it less than what it is,” he said.

Ferns said Legislative leaders are willing to work with parents, teachers, and union representatives to provide as much income and benefits as we can to the teachers.

“PEIA premiums have been frozen for 17 months, and it’s probably the only health care plan in country that will not see an increase this year,” he said. “Give us a chance to sit down… a solution is not achievable in the next 120 days.”

“We have a constitutional duty to be good stewards of their dollars, and spend these as wisely as possible and not bankrupt the state,” Ferns said of taxpayers.

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