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West Virginia lawmakers reach deal to give striking teachers pay raise

A massive crowd of protesters is seen here outside the West Virginia senate chamber on March 5, 2018. West Virginia legislators scrambled to see whether there is enough money to meet teacher pay demands and end a strike that has dragged into its eighth day.

West Virginia lawmakers said Tuesday morning that a deal has been reached to deliver a 5% pay raise for all state employees, including striking teachers, according to the state committee meeting on the matter.

The deal is intended to end a teachers’ strike that has canceled nine consecutive school days across the state. Teachers’ union representative Christine Campbell told CNN she anticipates school will back in session Wednesday if the bill is passed Tuesday in the House of Delegates and Senate.

At a legislative conference committee meeting Tuesday to resolve the issue, Republican state Sen. Craig Blair said the new deal represents the largest pay raise in state history. There will be no tax increase to offset the raise, and Blair said the government will see a $20 million reduction in spending to come out of cuts to general services and Medicaid.

“With this agreement today to reduce spending in state government, in order to give every single dollar available to our public employees, we’ve achieved the goal of being fiscally responsible while also getting a pay raise that will help our teachers get back in the classroom and our students back to school,” said Republican Senate Majority leader Ryan Ferns, a Republican.

Public schools in 55 counties across the Mountain State were closed again Tuesday as teachers and educators demanded higher wages and better benefits, particularly for the embattled state employee health insurance program known as the Public Employee Insurance Agency, or PEIA.

West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation in terms of how much it pays its teachers, according to the National Education Association, and educators say that low pay pushes qualified teachers to leave the state.

Separately, Gov. Jim Justice agreed to set up a task force to address the state health insurance program on March 13.

The strike began February 22 when about 20,000 teachers walked out of schools in what has been a show of the strength of organized labor. Though currently limited to West Virginia, the strike has had repercussions outside the state as teachers in Oklahoma say they, too, have reached their breaking point and are considering walking off the job next month.

Yet the focus in West Virginia has remained on the teachers in the trenches, even for students who have been out of class for days.

“I wish it wouldn’t have come to this and that I was still in school, but I want the teachers to get the wages that they deserve, so I’m all right with it,” said Victoria Blickenstaff, a sophomore at Fairmont Senior High School in Fairmont, said before the announcement of the deal.

A legislative standoff

The West Virginia Legislature faced a standoff over how much of a pay raise to offer striking teachers and educators. A legislative conference committee had been appointed to resolve differences between bills in the House and Senate.

Last week, the governor and union leaders agreed that teachers and service personnel would receive a 5% pay raise, and the House of Delegates approved the proposal. However, Republicans in the Senate passed a bill Saturday night with a 4% raise. Union leaders said teachers wouldn’t return to work until they get a 5% raise.

Over the weekend, the Legislature said the difference between the two proposals was $13 million. But the governor’s office and House Finance Committee reran the numbers and now say that new projections show a difference of $6.9 million.

Democratic lawmakers said the new revenue projections show the money is there.

“We are only talking about a minuscule amount of money,” said state Sen. Robert Plymale, a Democratic member of the legislative conference committee, referring to the $6.9 million difference.

But lawmakers such as Sen. Craig Blair, a Republican committee member, expressed skepticism that the difference was only $6.9 million.

“I’m still concerned — very concerned for that matter — that the numbers are not accurate,” he said.