All 55 West Virginia counties closed their public schools Thursday for the first day of what unions have announced, so far, will be a two-day work stoppage by public school employees — the first in state history of this magnitude to include teachers and school service personnel.
Despite Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s statements Wednesday that public school employee work stoppages are “illegal,” and state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine earlier calling them “not lawful,” thousands of people, many in red, a smaller number in blue, began converging around and inside the state Capitol in Charleston on a foggy Thursday morning.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, didn’t signal by Thursday afternoon that the statewide work stoppage had changed their minds about what to do regarding employee pay raises, Public Employees Insurance Agency health coverage funding and the other, seemingly lesser, issues that are among the protesters’ complaints.
“I think we’re on the right path,” Carmichael said. “We appreciate hearing from the education community. Again, I’ll reiterate the fact that I wish they would have stayed in school. I think it’s an illegal walkout, and I’m disappointed they felt they had to come here to make those points known. I felt those points had already been taken into account.
“We want to provide as much as we can, in terms of a great compensation package,” he said. “We change what’s right for West Virginia based on an outpouring of emotion from a particular group of people? We shouldn’t be susceptible to that, we should absolutely do the right thing based on the data and analysis and so forth, and not be persuaded by a large demonstration.”
The Senate and House this week passed a school employee pay raise bill, but the Senate amended it to shave off one of the 1 percent annual-increase years that the House had earlier proposed for teachers. The passed version, which Gov. Jim Justice announced late Wednesday he had signed into law, includes for teachers a 2 percent pay increase next school year, followed by two years of 1 percent annual increases.
The Senate also passed a bill this week removing a retirement benefit that only went to the teacher union presidents. The House has yet to take it up.
Carmichael said, “We’re basically out of time” in this year’s regular legislative session, which ends March 10, for the Senate to pass to the House several types of bills that public school employees have opposed this session: ones legalizing taxpayer-funded private school vouchers and charter schools and downplaying the role of seniority in teacher layoff and transfer decisions. He suggested he still believes in such ideas.
Armstead wouldn’t rule out Thursday pushing such bills to get them to pass the House to reach the Senate and possibly survive the end of the session. But he said, if they advance, they likely would have to be out of House legislative committees — where they haven’t even appeared yet — by Saturday to survive.
Armstead said he believes the current school employee seniority system is flawed.
He said, “We’ve not made a determination” on whether to push a measure (Senate Bill 335) the Senate has passed that would require school employee union members to annually re-agree to have part of their countywide school system-issued paychecks withheld to pay union dues.
Carmichael said he thinks the Senate’s work this session is generally done, regarding legislation addressing school employee pay increases and PEIA funding, with tens of millions of dollars in funding already promised to keep PEIA benefits and premiums the same next school year and a few other bills moving to provide more future funding, though not enough to guarantee no more benefit cuts. Armstead left the door open for more legislation on these issues this year, and both leaders expressed support for a study group on PEIA.
Christine Campbell, president of the state arm of the American Federation of Teachers union, said she thinks lawmakers have been listening, “in some respects.”
“The bills we’ve been fighting for the last several years — charter schools and taking public education dollars and the possibility of them going to private corporations — those bills aren’t running this year,” she said. “The seniority bills, they came out last year, they came back this year, those bills aren’t running.”
About 5,170 people entered the Statehouse through the two public access points Thursday, according to the last update from the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. For comparison, department Communications Director Lawrence Messina said the weekday average going back to Jan. 5 has been about 1,380.
It took a while for the crowd to get in Thursday.
About 1,000 people were standing in a line around 10 a.m. That stretched from Capitol security and the metal detector at the West Wing entrance, around a side of the West Virginia Culture Center, and to the back of that building. Around 10:15 a.m., there were about 700 people in the other line, stretching from the East Wing security checkpoint back to the back entrance of the Department of Education’s headquarters.
Two people who came through the West Wing checkpoint around 11:50 a.m. said they had gotten in line around 9 a.m. or just before 10 a.m.
Unlike the crowd in the Statehouse during the earlier work stoppages this year — seven counties, including some in the Northern Panhandle area, participated last Friday, and three counties, all in Southern West Virginia, took part Feb. 2 — the crowd this time simultaneously packed both sides of the Upper Rotunda.
One crowd held signs and chanted at the House of Delegates chamber, while the other did the same thing facing the Senate chamber.
At about 11:20 a.m. (both houses of the Legislature were scheduled to begin their daily floor sessions at 11 a.m.), school employee union leaders in front of the crowd that was in front of the Senate chamber said a fire marshal was asking protesters there to cycle downstairs to the Lower Rotunda so more people could fit in the building.
Messina, when asked if crowds were being redirected due to capacity issues, wrote in an email that “Capitol Police and the Fire Marshal’s Office continue to monitor the safety situation, but there are still no concerns.”
Despite the union leaders asking them to cycle out (hundreds did eventually fill the Lower Rotunda), members of the crowd near the Senate lingered for at least a little longer, chanting “Do your job!” and singing the refrain of a Twisted Sister song, “We’re not going to take it anymore!”
Earlier, the crowd had suddenly started booing — Zanetta Stallworth, an AFT-WV union staff member who was pumping up the crowd, said it was because the Senate was closing the wooden exterior doors to the chamber.
“Open up the doors!” a chant rang out, with a smaller group starting a response to it of “Let the sun shine in!”
At about 1 p.m. — for some reason from the crowd in front of the House chamber — there was singing of “Move, Mitch, get out the way!” It was to the tune of rapper Ludacris’ “Move, Bi---.”
Earlier Thursday, Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, joined protesters on the Kanawha River side of the Capitol. About 200 people were there shortly after 8:30 a.m., when a honking bus let off a dozen more. The crowd chanted “Fed up, fired up!” and “Enough is enough!”
“I’m reporting for duty on the picket line,” Weingarten said. “They are engaged in a righteous and fundamental American values fight for dignity and respect.”
She said West Virginia teachers have been “disrespected by their government officials who think it’s more important to give tax cuts to the wealthy and to corporations” than to invest in education.
“People are saying we can’t actually live and teach and we need the Legislature to actually treat us like the priority education should be,” she said.
Weingarten said the first step to ending the work stoppage would be “to not do what the Senate did, which was actually to lower the House proposal.” She was referring to the Senate change to the House version of the pay raise bill.
Donald Thomas, a teacher at Putnam County’s Hurricane High School, was among those protesting in front of the Capitol. He expressed a commonly heard comment on the already promised freezing of PEIA health insurance premiums and other aspects of PEIA benefits through the middle of 2019.
Amid the growing protests from public school employees, Justice proposed that move, which stopped previously approved benefit cuts from occurring, and Republican legislative leaders have pushed bills to provide funding to support the freeze.
“They want to wait until after November, I think is the problem most people have, trying to shut us up for the election,” Thomas said. “I feel like that’s what most people are taking from the 17-month freeze.”