State leaders reach deal on teacher, state pay on ninth day of strike

by Kate Evans

Morgan County Schools and other schools across West Virginia remained closed on Tuesday, March 6 as teachers and school personnel held out for a 5 percent pay raise and fixes to their health insurance benefits.

Locally, the walkout affected 2,374 students enrolled in six Morgan County schools and 321 school employees.

A tentative agreement was brokered last Tuesday February 27 between Governor Jim Justice and union representatives to end a statewide work stoppage, but state lawmakers hadn’t approved a bill authorizing the raise.

A conference committee agreed on Tuesday, March 6 to a bill that would give all state employees a 5 percent raise. State officials issued statements before noon saying students would return to schools. At presstime there was no word whether local schools would be open Wednesday.

State lawmakers passed a teacher and state employee pay raise bill on Tuesday during the ninth day of a statewide school personnel strike.

The Governor and U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) both called for legislators to “quit playing politics” and get teachers and students back in the classroom.

State union leaders said previously they felt significant strides had been made in addressing the issues of higher salaries and health insurance costs. They advised teachers and school staff to return to the classroom on Thursday, March 1. Many said they weren’t ready to go back until a raise bill was passed by lawmakers.

The reasons, progress

The statewide work stoppage, which began on Thursday, February 22, was called over Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) health insurance changes and rising costs, deteriorating benefits and salaries that are causing teachers to leave the state.

Justice signed an executive order last Wednesday to set up a PEIA task force by the end of the week. The executive order also called for public hearings about PEIA to be held in all 55 counties. A freeze was placed on PEIA premiums and benefits for the next 16 months while they work on solutions.

Justice has already appointed 12 members of the 25-member task force.

Members include three members each from the state House of Delegates and also the state Senate, three full-time public employees, one representative from each of the two state teachers unions, one representative from the state service personnel union, two retired state employees-one an educator, seven members appointed by the Governor that have insurance and business expertise and five members appointed by the Governor to serve at his will and pleasure.

A member of the state PEIA board will also sit on the task force as will Governor Justice’s Chief of Staff Mike Hall who will chair the task force. The task force’s first meeting is set for March 13.

Board won’t penalize staff

The Morgan County School Board held an emergency meeting last Wednesday, February 28 for the discussion and potential official action in reaction to the continued employee work stoppage.

Superintendent May called for the emergency school board meeting after local teacher and service personnel union leaders indicated that the work stoppage would probably continue on Wednesday.

May said after the meeting the local school board is not considering any disciplinary action against any school employees that took part in the work stoppage. He said superintendents have made the decision to close schools in 55 counties. School boards can’t take any disciplinary action against any employees that didn’t work those days since schools were closed by administrators.

May said the board is deeply sympathetic and supportive of the teachers and service personnel. He said he’s not interested in disciplinary action and that he wants to “unify faculty and staff behind our common goals, our mission and vision as a school district and our care and regard for every student’s future.”

Morgan County Schools employs 209 professional staff that includes teachers, administrators, central office staff, counselors, social workers and nurses and 112 service personnel that includes bus drivers, aides, secretaries, clerks, cooks, custodians, bus mechanics and maintenance staff.

Revenue & reforms

Governor Justice has said he was looking at state employee salaries prudently and not as an investment in education and in West Virginia. Justice later hiked state revenue estimates by $58 million, which he said came from an improved economic forecast.

Justice’s Chief of Staff Hall cited recent improvement in the gross national product and national economic performance indicators and some evidence of state growth along with federal tax reforms as reasons for Justice’s new numbers.

In a letter to all state employees, Justice said more money for PEIA could come from additional coal and gas severance taxes, sports betting gaming revenue, tax dollars being generated from state road projects, continuing economic growth and even putting out the insurance for competitive bidding.

The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia said the highlights of their settlement proposal which included freezing all PEIA changes and costs for a 16-month period, repealing Go 365 and total family income provisions permanently and forming a PEIA Task Force whose stakeholders would include teachers, service personnel, state employees, legislators and representatives from PEIA and the Governor’s office.