CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Facing pressure from striking, chanting teachers who filled the Capitol again Thursday, West Virginia’s Senate majority refused to take up their pay raise legislation, angering protesters and causing schools across the state to stay closed Friday.
West Virginia Education Association union locals upset by the Senate and its leader’s comments were staying out of work, union spokeswoman Kym Randolph said.
By Thursday evening, the Department of Education said public schools in all 55 counties would remain shuttered for a seventh day.
The statewide strike over low pay and rising insurance costs had been expected to end Thursday under a deal negotiated between Gov. Jim Justice and union leaders. It included 5 percent raises and a task force appointed to find a long-term state funding source to offset public workers’ rising health care costs.
However, the Senate voted 20-14 to send the legislation with raises to its Finance Committee instead of quickly voting on it as the House did with 98-1 approval the night before. All but one of the Senate’s majority Republicans voted against holding the floor vote.
Outside the Senate chamber, hundreds of teachers chanted “Pass that bill” and sang John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
“We don’t trust the Senate,” said Jacob Staggers, a sixth-grade teacher at South Middle School in Morgantown.
Sen. Craig Blair, a Martinsburg Republican, announced on the floor Thursday afternoon that the Finance Committee he chairs wasn’t going to meet, never was going to meet Thursday, and would meet Friday to consider budget legislation for the coming fiscal year and other bills.
“That budget will also have to have whatever we do for pay raises, PEIA (Public Employees Insurance Agency) and all the other host of things that we need to be able to manage,” Blair said. “I don’t like feeling bullied into when we’re going to do something.”
Del. Saira Blair, his daughter, had been the sole no vote in the House. She told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that legislators had already passed a fiscally responsible pay raise package and the higher raise was a political ploy.
The raise Justice announced Tuesday night for the fiscal year starting July 1 is a more generous offer than a pay raise bill he signed less than a week earlier with 2 percent raises. The teachers haven’t had a raise for four years.
West Virginia teachers and service personnel, noting that they were among the lowest paid in the country, walked off the job Feb. 22. The governor’s projected $58 million increase in state revenues during that fiscal year would cover the higher raises.
Sen. John Unger, a Martinsburg Democrat, said it was the Senate’s fault the walkout would continue Friday. He’d heard rumblings that opponents of the settlement were delaying to create a divide and turn parents against teachers. “I hope that’s not the intention,” he said.
Justice had announced he’s forming a task force to find a solution to rising costs in the insurance plan covering West Virginia teachers and other public workers. The PEIA board has agreed to freeze rates in the coming year.
Staggers said teachers want to know the task force’s makeup and expectations “because our insurance is what sent us out of the classroom.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael said sustainably funding the insurance is “paramount.” In the Senate plan, the revenue surplus the governor identified would be dedicated to insurance costs and would benefit all public employees and retirees, he said.
All 100 seats in the House are up for election this year, along with half the 34 seats in the Senate. Teachers have promised to pay close attention to each lawmaker’s actions and vote accordingly.
Those include 10 Senate seats held by Republicans seeking re-election, five held by Democrats and two where incumbent Republicans aren’t running.