Public schools across West Virginia are closed for the third day of a teacher walkout that began last Thursday over low wages and rising costs of health-care benefits, and union leaders this afternoon announced that the strike will continue for a fourth day. (The first statewide teacher strike in West Virginia’s history took place nearly 30 years ago and it lasted 12 days.)
This morning, Gov. Jim Justice held the first of three town halls planned in the state for today at Wheeling Park High School. “I apologize for the fact that you have been forgotten in a lot of ways,” he said. “You’re never forgotten with me.”
Although Justice said he sees teachers’ struggles, he also made it clear that an additional pay raise, on top of the one he signed into legislation last week, isn’t going to happen any time soon. “You’re swimming upstream,” he said. (The new legislation will give teachers a 2 percent pay increase starting in July, followed by an additional 1 percent hike in each of the next two fiscal years. Teachers unions have said that the raise is inadequate.)
He did, however, promise to work on fixing the health benefit system, while at the same time warning that there’s “not a chance in the planet” it could happen in the next 10 days.
“We are in the process of creating a task force committee to work on a solution to PEIA [Public Employees Insurance Agency] and all your education needs,” he told the crowd of teachers in the auditorium. “I will gladly put educators on that committee.”
Justice said he would call a special session of the legislature to address a natural gas tax that could help fund the health system.
Some teachers weren’t having any of it. Scott Heins, a freelance photojournalist, reported on Twitter that some teachers ended up “walking out in disgust.”
Christine Campbell, the president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and Dale Lee, the president of West Virginia Education Association, met with state house and senate leaders this morning and are “making progress,” but aren’t ready to end the strike.
At a press conference this afternoon, both Campbell and Lee stressed to the crowd of teachers that they were still working to guarantee that they all have a voice in how teacher pay and the underfunding of the health benefit system gets fixed. Both said they’d like all the stakeholders, including the governor, who was not in the meeting with house and senate leaders this morning, to come together to work toward a solution.
And for legislators who aren’t serious about solving the problems with teacher pay and benefits, “we have news for them in November,” Dale said. The crowd responded by chanting, “We will remember in November!”
The state has signaled that it may take legal action against what it calls an “illegal and disruptive” strike. State Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine put out a statement over the weekend saying that a decision on legal action against the teachers will be made some time today.
Stay tuned for updates on this story.
- West Virginia Teachers’ Strike for Higher Pay Has Shut Down Schools Across State
- Legislative Plan Ends 12-Day West Virginia Teacher Strike
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.