A mix-up in the West Virginia State Senate gave the impression that the body had passed a measure giving teachers and other state personnel a 5% raise, ending a walkout that has kept teachers out of classrooms for more than week. Instead, it looks like teachers from all fifty-five West Virginia counties will continue their strike for an eighth straight day.
The strike came after weeks of protests by teachers and public employees over West Virginia lawmakers’ reluctance to fully fund the Public Employees Insurance Agency as well as increase pay.
Governor Jim Justice proposed freezing PEIA, which would have delayed previously-approved cost increases for employees for one year. Justice wanted to use that time to work out a permanent solution. Teachers and employees, however, were dissatisfied with the short-term fix. Many of the protesters are carrying signs that read “A Freeze Is Not A Fix.”
Teachers and public employees are also protesting low pay increases. A bill proposing a 2% raise followed by three 1% raises got stuck in the Senate earlier this year. A previous bill that called for a 3% increase followed by two 1% raises was rejected.
Teachers are demanding a 5% pay raise, but so far, state lawmakers have been resisted approving one. The West Virginia State House of Delegates approved a 5% pay raise earlier in the week, but the State Senate cut that raise from 5% to 4%, angering the teachers. That bill went back to the House which, in turn, rejected it.
The one-point difference amounts to roughly $13 million according to state lawmakers, and supporters of the pay raise argue that shortfall can be made up from funds from other agencies. West Virginia educators are among the lowest-paid in the country.
Critics of the raise remain doubtful. “For numbers to appear out of a meeting and show up on our desks saying all of sudden the numbers are there … as far as I’m concerned it’s…worthless,” said Republican State Sen. Gregory Boso.
Gov. Justice attempted to keep the focus on the students, who were missing school days with their teachers on the walkout. “Mistakes and differences aside, we’ve got to get our kids back to school. While everyone is focused on the mistakes, my focus is solely on getting our children back to school. It’s time to quit playing politics and get our kids back in school,” he wrote yesterday on Twitter.
Before going on strike, many West Virginia teachers packed school lunches for their students, and others continue to deliver food to their students’ homes as the strike continues. “One of our biggest worries … was our kids getting fed,” Patrick Williams, a social worker at Beckley Elementary, told the TODAY show. “We truly honestly care about our kids.”
A large number of West Virginia students rely on free school breakfast and lunch programs.
At one point yesterday, it seemed as though the Senate had approved the 5% pay raise. The Senate thought it had voted to cut the raise to 4%, but a House version of the bill with the 5% raise had entered into the Senate voting system by accident, leading to the belief that the 5% increase had been approved.
The Senate re-voted after the mistake was discovered and the original bill with the 4% increase passed.
The next step is for a legislative conference, made up of three members each from both the State House and Senate, to meet to try and strike a deal. Such a conference would have three days to fund a compromise, although it could vote to extend that time period. It in unclear when such a conference would meet but legislators said it could convene as early as today.