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West Virginia Teachers To End Strike After Reaching Deal With Governor

Feb 27, 2018
Originally published on February 27, 2018 10:55 pm

The work stoppage that has closed public schools in West Virginia will end Thursday, leaders of teacher and service personnel unions said after meeting with the governor.

The news came at a press conference on Tuesday, where Gov. Jim Justice announced a 3 percent pay increase for all state employees this year, with an additional 2 percent hike for those who work in education, including teachers and service personnel. However, it remains unknown whether leaders of the House and Senate will go along with the deal.

"I've talked to the president of the Senate and speaker of the House, and I'm very hopeful," Justice said. "I think in all fairness to them they should speak. Let's just give them time."

The governor left the press conference early to coach a high school girls basketball team in a game.

Leaders of the American Federation of Teacher-West Virginia, the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association said Wednesday will serve as a "cool down" period before teachers and service personnel return to the classroom.

They expressed optimism that the deal with the governor would become reality, but kept open the possibility of another strike.

"We reserve the right — we may have to call our people back out again," WVEA President Dale Lee said, noting that the Legislature would still need to pass the proposed raises to satisfy demands.

Justice proposed paying for the salary increases by raising revenue estimates by $58 million for the next fiscal year. He cited expected revenue increases partly from President Trump's tax plan, which passed earlier this year. Figures released earlier this month show collections for the state's general revenue fund in January were $28.2 million, or 6.7 percent, short of estimates for the month. More than seven months into the current fiscal year, the state is 1 percent behind original estimates.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael said his chamber will take a hard look at the fiscal environment before agreeing to the salary increases, "while respecting and providing all the pay raises that are available to our public employees and teachers."

Carmichael also said the reaction to the demands of the unions might have played too much of an influence on the deal.

"It feels like we're perhaps reacting to pressure as opposed to properly managing the fiscal affairs of our state," he said.

House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead indicated optimism about the governor's proposed pay increase for teachers, service personnel and all other state workers, citing federal tax cuts for a rejuvenated state economy.

The work stoppage included demands for a long-term fix to the health insurance program for public employees. On that issue, Justice said he agreed to create a task force to study solutions.

The program's finance board agreed last week to freeze proposed changes to the plan that would call for increases to premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs until July 2019. Legislation to address short and long term fixes to the insurance plan have yet to become final.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

West Virginia teachers are ending their strike which has shut down all the state's public schools since last Thursday. Union leaders met with Governor Jim Justice, and they have settled on higher pay rates. On the line with us now to give us an update is Dave Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Thank you for joining us.

DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: Thanks, Ailsa.

CHANG: What was the main sticking point for teachers going into this strike? What was the main thing that they wanted to get out of it?

MISTICH: Well, there were a couple of big things, one being pay. West Virginia ranks 48th nationally across the United States, including Washington, D.C., in average teacher pay. So that was a big one as well as a fix - a long-term fix, I should say, to their health care program known as the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

In terms of pay increases, the governor last week on the eve of this strike signed a bill that called for teachers a 4 percent raise over the course of three years. For school service personnel, that called for 3 percent over two years. When that bill was signed, teachers went immediately, did not change their plans. They started their walkout. And that's where things stood up until today.

CHANG: OK. And so what did they get out of the deal with the governor today?

MISTICH: Right. So union leaders met with Governor Justice, and this evening they announced a 5 percent raise for teachers this coming year. That also comes along with a 3 percent raise for all state employees.

CHANG: OK.

MISTICH: So as far as what the deal came out today - 3 percent across the board for all state employees with an additional 2 percent for teachers and service personnel.

CHANG: Throughout this strike, the governor has said that the state's economy is still kind of on shaky ground, and he has asked the school employees to just hang on and wait for the economy to continue to recover. Where is this money going to come from, this money that's been promised to the teachers and other employees?

MISTICH: I mean, that's the question. I mean, at this point, it goes to the hands of the legislature. They've been saying all along that the Republican leadership has called on the governor and themselves to be fiscally responsible. They've told teachers that. So with this even higher salary increase for teachers and also including other state employees, that right now is the big question at hand.

CHANG: So the state legislature still has to formally approve this. And how likely is that going to happen?

MISTICH: Well, there is a deadline for them tomorrow. But the governor could actually call them back into special session. The governor's office is also looking at some provisions in state code that would allow them to pass this before the end of the session, which is March 10. But if it doesn't happen by the end of the session, he can always call them back for a special session. And it's likely that that's probably going to be the way that this works out.

CHANG: OK, so it's not a done deal yet. I'm assuming you've talked to some teachers. How are they feeling about the deal that went through as of today?

MISTICH: Right. Well, you know, as this press conference was going on, the teachers - they packed outside of the governor's reception room. Eventually some of them were let into the press conference. And, you know, while a few expressed a lot of happiness over this, there weren't as many cheers as you would have expected as we've heard all along throughout this strike. But I will say that, you know, that to me indicates some skepticism which I think inevitably we're going to see a lot of from lawmakers as this continues on.

CHANG: OK. That's Dave Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Thank you.

MISTICH: All right, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.