No end in sight in West Virginia teachers strike
Classrooms across West Virginia appeared likely to remain empty for a seventh school day Friday as a proposed 5% pay increase for the state's 20,000 public school teachers bogged down in the state Senate.
Hundreds of teachers, carrying signs saying "We'd rather be teaching" and "Do your job" swarmed the Capitol in Charleston to lobby lawmakers Thursday, one day after the pay hike won House approval.
But the state Senate rejected a plan to summarily approve the deal, instead sending it to a committee that is not scheduled to meet this week. Teachers, meanwhile, are vowing to keep fighting in what has become a remarkable standoff that seemed to have been settled two days ago with a concession by the governor.
Kevin Green, who teaches social studies at River View High School in Bradshaw, said teachers won't return to work unless the Senate approves the measure.
"We have been promised so many things for so long and none of it comes to fruition," Green told USA TODAY. "We want to see a firm commitment before we go back."
Gov. Jim Justice proposed the pay hike Tuesday and also outlined plans for a new task force to address teacher concerns over fast-rising health care costs.
Justice, under pressure to get the state's 275,000 students back in schools, also proposed a 3% pay hike for all other state workers. He also agreed to freeze health care costs for more than a year. The task force on that issue will include teachers and is expected to complete its work by year's end.
The governor had planned a "cooling off" day Wednesday, with schools reopening Thursday. State Education Association President Dale Lee and state American Federation of Teachers leader Christine Campbell had encouraged teachers to return to work.
The teachers, along with almost 10,000 support staffers, overwhelmingly balked.
"The teachers have a general distrust of the governor and legislature as a whole," AFT spokeswoman Jennifer Wood told USA TODAY. "They didn't believe (lawmakers) would follow through."
So far they have not. Concerns were heightened Wednesday when Senate President Mitch Carmichael questioned Justice's decision to increase the state's revenue estimate to squeeze the pay hikes into the budget.
District by district, schools were canceled Thursday as officials realized teachers would not show up. Now teachers say they have no timeline for returning to class.
"We had some teachers who were very upset with us" for accepting the deal, Wood said. "We did not see that coming."
Ginger Blankenship, a kindergarten teacher at Bradshaw Elementary School, expressed dismay at the Senate delay.
"We are right back where we started," she said. "I don't understand how one man can have so much power."