With a proposal for an even higher pay raise next school year, this year’s statewide public school employees strike — the second teacher strike in West Virginia history and the first to also include school service personnel — is planned to end, at least for now.
The strike began last Thursday, after one-day employee walkouts in at least 11 counties. Under the plan announced Tuesday, employees are to return to work Thursday.
That’s according to Republican Gov. Jim Justice and leaders of the state’s three major school worker unions: the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.
Details were lacking in the news conference, which happened after 6 p.m. Justice took only a couple of shouted questions from reporters, saying he had to get to George Washington High School, in Charleston’s South Hills, to coach his Greenbrier East High girls basketball team. The game started at 7, and the Spartans lost to GW, 90-81, to end their season.
Union leaders stayed longer to answer questions from the roomful of reporters, but they also cut off the news conference, saying they had to leave.
“We reserve the right to call our teachers and service personnel out at a later date if we need to,” WVEA President Dale Lee said.
While Justice said the continued closure of schools Wednesday was sort of a “cooling-off” day and because some schools had already announced they’d be closed Wednesday, Lee suggested Wednesday was also a delay to see how legislators would react.
Justice, the union leaders, Justice lobbyist Larry Puccio, Justice special adviser Bray Cary and Justice Chief of Staff Mike Hall met behind closed doors Tuesday before emerging shortly after 6 p.m., with about 150 people gathered outside the door to the governor’s reception room.
Justice earlier proposed just a 1 percent pay increase for teachers, school service personnel (a category that includes bus drivers, cooks and others) and state employees for next school year, and then signed, on the eve of the previously announced statewide strike, a bill passed by the state Legislature that would give the school employees and State Police a 2 percent pay increase for next fiscal year and 1 percent annual raises the following two years. (The same raises for other government employees are to be built into the state budget bill.)
At Tuesday’s news conference, Justice announced that he’s proposing giving teachers and school service personnel a further 3 percent next fiscal year with a further 1 percent for state government employees, for a total of 5 percent for the school employees and 3 percent for the state employees, all next fiscal year, which starts July 1. (A school year takes place within a single fiscal year.)
“Maybe I was looking at what it was, the prudent thing to do and not necessarily looking at education as an investment, so I went home and I thought a lot about it,” Justice said.
Justice proposed paying for this plan by raising revenue estimates by $58 million for next fiscal year, based on extra revenue he said he expects from things like Republican President Donald Trump’s tax cut bill.
Hall said it’s about $20 million for the additional 1 percent increase for all state employees plus teachers and school service personnel, and a further $26 million for the extra 2 percent for teachers and school service personnel. Each 1 percent raise is more accurately an additional increase of $404 across the board for teachers, so now the raise for next school year is up to $2,020.
There were no immediate proposals discussed to provide more long-term funding to Public Employees Insurance Agency health benefits, which have been the prime concern among many school employees.
“We’re going to appoint a task force right off the get go and we’re gonna dig into PEIA and try to look for solutions and a permanent fix to PEIA,” Justice said.
Justice also announced he’d be backing off his proposal he revealed at town halls Monday to oppose the co-tenancy bill that’s been favored by the natural gas industry and that’s currently being considered by senators. The bill would allow drilling on land without 100 percent of landowners’ support.
The governor had said he wanted to save that legislation for a special session, which also could include raising the natural gas severance tax to provide more funding for PEIA.
“For now we’re not going to tie that to co-tenancy in any way,” Justice said of raising severance taxes.
While no lawmakers said they opposed the proposal in nature, several legislative leaders signaled doubt regarding the new revenue estimates appearing so conveniently.
When asked how the state could pay for the teacher and state employee pay raises, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said he’d like to know as well.
“That’s a great question,” he said. “It’s a question we’ll have to deal with as adults and evaluate the proposal that has come at the last second after a pay raise has already been passed and signed by the governor.”
Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, had a similar take on the same inquiry.
“That’s a good question. That is a concept beyond my understanding of the state budget,” he said. “I don’t see a pathway for being able to do that. I’m unsure as to why the governor has decided to make that sort of an announcement without fully vetting the financial implications, as well as having the Legislature weigh in on it.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said he wanted to give teachers a higher raise than what the Legislature already passed all along, although only as long as it would not raise any taxes.
He said while he needs to review the numbers the proposal is promising.
“To the extent that that is the case, I think that’s very encouraging news for us,” he said.
In an emailed statement from the House Democratic Caucus, Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said he’s glad Justice “found” the money to give teachers, school service personnel and other government workers a pay raise, but they need to happen fast, to prevent a costly special legislative session.
“We call on Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Tim Armstead to immediately take action on legislation to ensure these pay raises happen without incurring any additional cost to the taxpayers by having a special session,” Miley said. “We must begin work tomorrow on finding a permanent fix to PEIA, which is, by far, the No. 1 concern of public employees and retirees.”
Two legislators in the Capitol hallways declined to comment on the burgeoning proposal. Sen. Mark Drennan, R-Putnam, would not comment after Justice’s news conference. House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, referred questions to Armstead.
Wednesday is crossover day at the Capitol, meaning it is the last day the House or Senate can pass a bill out of its chamber of origin, unless it’s a budget or supplemental appropriation bill. Armstead said he and his staff have interpreted a salary bill to fit under that umbrella, meaning it could be passed without a two-thirds majority.