CHARLESTON — A statewide public school work stoppage continues today as legislators failed over the weekend to reach an agreement on salary increases for teachers and school service personnel, who were set to once again to go to Charleston and gather at the Capitol Building.
Today marks the eighth day of the strike, and state education association leaders say it will continue until a satisfactory agreement is reached.
That agreement is a 5 percent pay raise for education personnel and 3 percent for all public employees, a deal championed by Gov. Jim Justice and passed overwhelmingly by the House last week.
But on Saturday, the Senate amended the bill to give all public employees a 4 percent raise, a move rejected by the House. The issue is now in the hands of a conference committee to try to come up with an agreement acceptable to both legislative bodies.
After the Senate vote, leaders of the the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), the AFT (American Federation of Teachers (AFT)-West Virginia and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association released a statement saying the strike will continue in all 55 counties until the House bill with the 5 percent raise is signed by the Governor.
All public schools will remain closed “until the Senate honors the agreement that was made,” they said.
They said the Senate, which supported the 4 percent raises on a vote of 21-13 with Monroe County Sen. Kenny Mann the lone Republican voting against it, was a move “to divide us and to pit us against each other.”
That is also what Justice said.
“This wrangling needs to stop right now,” he said in a statement released Saturday night after the Senate vote. “For crying out loud, we are putting our children at risk. I will not be a party to pitting our state employees against our teachers. I strongly feel we are blessed to have both.”
Justice said education should be “our centerpiece” and he supports the 5 percent raise.
“If revenues continue to improve, I will move quickly working with the Legislature to bring the remaining state workers from 3 percent to the 5 percent raise level,” he said. “But again, the bottom line is we have to be able to fill teacher classroom vacancies and we must get our kids back in the classroom.”
The difference between the two bills is $13 million.
State Sen. Chandler Swope, R-6th District, voted for the amended bill.
“I can support it (the 5 percent) if we can find the money,” he said Sunday. “We felt all state employees deserved a raise, not just teachers. Many of them haven’t had a raise for more than 10 years. Teachers get a $500 raise every year. Our finance committee scoured the budget and took every dollar they could find and dedicated virtually all of it all to payroll.”
Swope said when all employees were included there was only enough to go to 4 percent for everyone.
“Teachers got a total of $2,100 average,” he said. “The other 1 percent would have been $400 more. Every agency like DHHR (Department of Health and Human Resources, Commerce and others need more too.”
No money is available to increase programs in the state either, he added.
Although Justice said last week that in the latest revenue report the state is up $8 million, Swope is skeptical.
“We don’t know where the Governor is getting his numbers,” he said. “The day before he announced he was giving teachers 5 percent he told us he wasn’t happy with the 2 percent we gave in SB 267 but would go along with it. The next day he said there was plenty of money.”
Swope said the finance committee apparently couldn’t find it.
“I’ll vote for as much as we can find but feel a responsibility to taxpayers too,” he said. “I’m not in favor of deficit spending. Now that the economy is starting to turn around we can begin to increase salaries all over but the Constitution won’t let us write checks until the cash is actually in the bank.”
Swope said the Senate has heard the teachers’ voices “but strikes and rallies don’t put any money in the treasury.”
“I don’t know what will happen in conference committee,” he said. “The House approved the full 5 percent in a few hours. It took the Senate several days to research the budget. Fortunately they were ahead of schedule on the budget this year and were at least able to make a reasonable review. They’ll keep working and I hope can find enough money to satisfy everyone.”
State superintendents of schools support the 5 percent raise.
Gary Price, superintendent of Marion County schools and president of the state Association of School Administrators, told MetroNews in an interview Saturday he has met with superintendents and the only way to reopen schools is to pass the 5 percent.
“We have met with them ((senators) and we made that clear,” he said. “We are united on this.”
Education association leaders called for “all education employees and supporters to be at the Capitol on Monday (today) to deliver a clear message to Senator (Mitch) Carmichael (Senate President) and his leadership team.”
The conference committee, which did not meet on Sunday and had not announced when it would meet, consists of six appointed members, three from each house, with an overall equal number of Republicans and Democrats.
House conference committee members are Del. Bill Anderson (R-Wood), Paul Espinosa, (R-Jefferson County) and House education chair, and Del. Brent Boggs (D-Braxton), and House finance committee member.
Senators are Majority Leader Ryan Ferns (R-Ohio), Finance Chairman Craig Blair (R-Berkeley) and Robert Plymale (D-Wayne).
The proportion of two Republicans and one Democrat from each house reflects the makeup of each body.
A majority from each house must approve any agreement and then that agreement must also be approved by both the House and Senate.
— Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org