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W.Va. Schools Ordered Closed As Strike Enters Second Week

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Charleston, W.Va.--As West Virginia's first statewide teachers' strike entered its second week, the state superintendent ordered all schools in the state closed for a "cooling-off period" last Thursday and Friday after striking teachers rejected a proposed settlement offered by Gov. Gaston Caperton.

On Friday, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that circuit courts may issue injunctions ordering teachers to return to the classroom. The ruling followed a request by the state board of education for a statewide injunction.

Meanwhile, in the final hours of its session, the state legislature approved a $27.4-million pay package that would give teachers and administrators 4 percent raises effective July 1.

But the West Virginia Education Association, which represents 16,000 of the state's 22,000 teachers, continued to press for a special legislative session to find a "long-term" solution to the problem of low teacher salaries. West Virginia teachers earn an average of $21,904 a year, ranking them 49th in the nation in pay.

Educators here said the strike, which began March 7, was prompted not so much by salary concerns as by the teachers' determination to reorder the priorities of the economically depressed state.

"In a state with a loss of employment, it's very important for the economy to have a well-educated workforce," said Tony Lautar, vice president of the w.v.f.t. "The feeling most educators received from Caperton was more rhetoric than action."

West Virginia spends 70 percent of its state budget--which this year totals about $1.7 billion--on precollegiate and higher education.

Coming up with additional money is difficult, said the Governor's press secretary, G.C. Morse, because 70 percent of the state's residents have no school-age children. That situation presents the Governor with "a political dynamic that's very hard," Mr. Morse said.

He pointed out that the w.v.e.a. was the first group to endorse Mr. Caperton, who was elected in 1988 after stressing the importance of education to the state's economic future.

But several teachers here suggested that the Governor had raised their hopes, only to dash them.

Carol Rose, who teaches 6th grade at Big Chimney Elementary School in Kanawha County, feels "betrayed" by the Governor. But she also blames state residents for the lack of value they place on education.

"West Virginians as a whole don't value education," Ms. Rose said. "They say, 'What was good enough for Great Grandpa is good enough for me,' and he had a 3rd-grade education."

Governor's Proposal

On March 13, after two days of negotiations with representatives of the w.v.e.a. and w.v.f.t., Mr. Caperton proposed a plan to end the strike. The Governor offered to:

  • Shift $3 million from a program to buy computers for elementary schools and spend it on teachers' salaries. The funds would have increased salaries an average of 0.5 percent.
  • Work with the legislature to ensure that $20 million is allocated to a fund used to "equalize" teacher salaries across the state. Mr. Caperton said the money would provide teachers with raises of "nearly 4 percent."
  • Hold a special session of the legislature, "if sufficient surplus revenues are realized in the present budget year."
  • Hold an "education summit" in May to build political support for long-term education improvements.

The Governor also said he would continue to work with the legislature to ensure that teachers' health and retirement benefits are fully funded.

The w.v.e.a. denounced the proposal to increase salaries with any surplus funds as "too vague," and it disputed the Governor's contention that the equity fund would provide 4 percent increases for all teachers.

"Teachers have been on the picket lines for concrete improvements," said Kayetta Meadows, president of the w.v.e.a. "For years, they've heard promises, and those promises have been consistently broken."

Ms. Meadows also noted that the state legislature, which was meeting late last week to give final approval to the state budget, had already agreed to provide money for the teachers' retirement system and the health-insurance program for state employees.

46 Counties Affected

Before the schools were closed late last week, the strike had spread to 46 of the state's 55 counties.

In Greenbrier County, where the board of education had threatened to fire all striking teachers if they did not return to the classroom by March 14, teachers agreed to return to work this week.

In return, the board of education agreed to join the Greenbrier County Education Association in calling for a special legislative session before Sept. 1.

Houston Arbuckle, the president of the teachers' association, said teachers feared that the county, with the backing of the state education department, would carry out its threats to make an example of the county's striking teachers.

"There was a good deal of evidence that they were planning on following through," Mr. Arbuckle said. About 350 of the county's 400 teachers went out on strike, he said, and about 200 of those teachers continued to picket after receiving notices that they would be fired.

"The tension was what I had never experienced anything like before,'' he said. "There were people who had to be helped off the picket line because their nerves totally gave out. It was very scary."

Declining Enrollments

Finding new solutions to teachers' longstanding complaints is complicated by the fact that West Virginia's student enrollment has dramatically declined as residents moved to other states in search of work.

Mr. Morse said the state has lost 72,000 school-age children in the past 15 years and is expected to lose 25,000 more in the next seven years. Currently, the state's public-school enrollment is about 328,000.

Educators say teachers are also leaving the state. Graduates of the state's teacher-education programs are lured to North Carolina and other nearby states by higher salaries and a more attractive working climate. Tales abound of experienced teachers who left the state and who are now earning $8,000 to $10,000 a year more than they did in West Virginia.

In his initial offer to the teachers' unions March 5, Governor Caperton offered 5 percent salary increases that would have been partially financed by a $1-a-ton increase on coal produced in the state. The offer was withdrawn after the w.v.e.a. refused to call off all strike threats.

The Governor's new proposal makes no mention of a coal tax, which many here said was doomed because of opposition by the powerful coal lobby.

"King Coal" and the timber industry are widely viewed as controlling the legislature, which many teachers say gives big business unfair tax advantages.

"The feeling many people have is that a lot of out-of-state landlords who own a great portion of the state capitalize on the wealth and leave nothing behind," Mr. Lautar of the wvft said.

Before the strike began, the w.v.e.a. had suggested that the legislature pass an "excess acreage tax" on landowners with more than 1,000 acres, excluding farmland, to require coal and timber companies to pay their "fair share" of state taxes.

In a televised address last week, Governor Caperton noted that funding for public education has increased by $120 million since he took office 14 months ago. The Teachers' Retirement System was 17 months away from insolvency when he took office, he said, while the Public Employees Insurance Agency was one year behind in paying for health-insurance claims.

The state is now "solvent," the Governor said, adding that "No governor, no legislature, has done more for education than we have."

"Let us not kid ourselves," Mr. Caperton said. "It is very easy to say that the teachers need an additional pay raise, but the difficult part is finding out whose taxes are going to be raised."

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