The West Virginia Senate refused Friday to take action, on the full Senate floor or in a committee, on a bill for 5 percent across-the-board school employee and State Police pay raises for next fiscal year — legislation that a gathering of county school superintendents agreed Friday would get teachers and service personnel back into schools.
More than 40 of the state’s 55 county superintendents waited from noon or earlier Friday to meet with Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, who finally arrived around 3:30 p.m., after a Senate floor session during which Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, announced he was canceling a committee meeting, previously scheduled for Friday afternoon, where House Bill 4145 could’ve been discussed.
When asked when the bill would run, Blair said it would depend on when he gets a fiscal note and information on things like where the money is coming from and excess property tax levies. He also said he wants to give senators time to prepare amendments.
“I have grave concerns that, if we pass the 5 percent, counties that are supplementing teacher pay with excess levies might actually decide, ‘Well wait a minute, they just got a 5 percent pay increase, why should I vote for the excess levy?’ ” Blair said. “Once I get everything so the committee can make the right decision, we’re off and running.”
“The House basically did not deliberate [on] this 5 percent pay raise bill at all,” Blair said.
Manny Arvon, superintendent of Berkeley County Schools, has attributed the continuing strike to the Senate’s failure to pass the pay raise bill.
The Senate plans to meet again at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, with Senate Finance tentatively scheduled, Carmichael said, to meet at 10:30 a.m.
During Friday’s floor session, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, made a motion to bring H.B. 4145 directly to the floor for immediate consideration, bypassing the Finance Committee, but Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, made a motion to table Prezioso’s motion.
Ferns’ motion passed 20-13. Sen. Lynne Arvon, R-Raleigh, was the only Republican to vote with the Democrats, while Senate Education Chairman Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, was the only senator absent.
Senate Democrats on Thursday made a motion to skip the committee process on the bill, and it also failed, 20-14, with Arvon and Mann voting with the Democrats.
Ferns said, “When you talk about the pay raise, you’re not just talking about the actual dollars of the pay raise, pensions are affected.”
The superintendents told Carmichael and other Republican senators, in front of reporters at the Friday meeting at the state Capitol, that they believe passing the bill in the same version the House of Delegates passed would end the statewide strike, which has now stretched for seven school days and, if it continues Monday, will tie the length of the last teachers strike, which happened nearly 30 years ago but didn’t also include school service personnel, like this strike does.
“If it doesn’t pass, it’s going to be very difficult to bring our people back,” Grant County Superintendent Doug Lambert told Carmichael.
Carmichael would not commit to pushing to pass the bill as the House passed it.
“Is there any skepticism from anybody in the room about a $60 million revenue enhancement the day after you have a difficult meeting?” Carmichael asked the superintendents. Gov. Jim Justice, who, like Carmichael, is a Republican, proposed the higher pay increases and said he’d be revising revenue estimates up by $58 million Tuesday evening, after school employees harshly criticized him at town hall meetings the day before.
After Carmichael left the room, Justice came in, telling the superintendents that the Senate needs to pass the bill Saturday and saying, “the votes are there.”
“It better happen tomorrow,” Justice said. “If they don’t do it tomorrow, we spiral off into no man’s land. In all honesty, it has to happen tomorrow.”
Carmichael had told the superintendents the steps the Legislature had taken so far, like trying to push $29 million into Public Employees Insurance Agency health coverage to keep previously proposed cost increases and benefit reductions at bay, at least through mid-2019. He noted he’d gotten mixed messages from school employees about what to do, and Nelson Spencer, McDowell County’s superintendent, agreed, but said superintendents had waded through those mixed messages to find the answer.
Justice said “What I wish [senators] would’ve done was just said ‘OK governor, we’re with you, you raised the revenue, and at the end of the day, if it blows up, you own it.’” Superintendents chimed in that they told senators that.
“There needs to be a leap of faith,” Lambert said. Justice attributed the idea for raising revenue estimates to God.
Several school employees and superintendents from Southern West Virginia said Friday morning they believed the strike would end in their areas if the Senate passed the pay raise bill that day.
Many employees have said their biggest concern is possible benefit cuts and cost increases for PEIA. Justice publicized an executive order Wednesday establishing a task force to study the issue and, on Friday, announced it would hold its first meeting March 13.
“We wanted to voice what we feel from our teachers of what would satisfy them to go back to work, and we’ve talked to our teachers from the last three or four days, and we think we have a feel for them,” Spencer said.
By 9 a.m., a crowd had re-assembled outside the Senate chamber. (The state said 7,082 visitors entered through public access points as of 6:20 p.m.)
Chants included “We’re back!” and “Honor our deal!” and “We made a deal, pass that bill!” and “We’ll finish what we started!”
Also, “Mitch!” was a common response call to various chants, referring to Carmichael.
The GOP-controlled House passed the bill Wednesday evening, about 24 hours after Justice and state union leaders proposed the legislation as a way to end the strike as of Thursday.
The bill — which would replace an already-passed lower pay raise measure — would give teachers, school service personnel and the State Police a 5 percent raise for next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
The Senate didn’t meet again Wednesday night to OK the bill and send it to Justice for his signature.
On Thursday, when school employees bucked their state union leadership and continued the strike, Carmichael sent the bill to Senate Finance.
“Our teachers didn’t doubt you,” Brooke County Superintendent Toni Shute told Justice. “Our teachers doubted whether it would pass both the House and Senate, and they were validated.”
Mingo Central High School secretary Tammy Hodge said she was referring to the House version of H.B. 4145 when she chanted Friday, “We made a deal, pass that bill!” She said if it passes, she’d return to work Monday, and would stay working while the PEIA task force works to find long-term ways to fund the agency.
Angel McCoy, a social studies teacher at Logan County’s Man High, agreed with Hodge’s position, as did Antonette Mazzella-Gwinn, an eighth-grade teacher at Raleigh County’s Beckley-Stratton Middle.
“We want our 5 percent,” Mazzella-Gwinn said. “We’ll give them time to work on PEIA, but we want that 5 percent, because it was promised us and the state troopers.”
Jerry Pcholinsky, president of Boone County’s arm of the West Virginia Education Association union, said he’s “pretty certain” that passing the bill as it came out of the House would get Boone workers back to work on Monday.
“I can’t say for certain, but it looks good if Mitch would, if the Senate president would get off the stick,” Pcholinsky said. He said diverting the roughly $60 million in increased revenue projections into PEIA would be “just another Band-Aid.”
“The House can get, what, 98 people to vote in a matter of what, hours, and those gentlemen and ladies [in the Senate] can’t?” Pcholinsky said.