West Virginia House approves raises to end teacher strike

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s House approved a 5 percent pay raise negotiated by Gov. Jim Justice to end a walkout by West Virginia teachers though schools in all of its 55 counties planned to stay closed Thursday.

House approval 98-1 of the proposed raise came Wednesday evening. The Senate, which had adjourned earlier, was expected to consider it Thursday. Its leader, President Mitch Carmichael, expressed skepticism about the governor’s suddenly higher projected tax increases that would pay for the pay boosts but said that chamber would review it.

Hundreds of teachers gathered inside the Capitol on Wednesday protesting low pay and projected increases in their insurance costs and chanted “we won’t back down.” Others held a sign targeting legislators in the upcoming primary: “Make ’em pay in May.” They occupied the House galleries to watch the vote.

“We would not be here looking at this had they not stood up and said enough is enough is enough is enough,” said Delegate Rick Moye, a Raleigh County Democrat. What they really want most is a permanent funding fix to offset rising insurance costs, he added.

Teachers and service personnel in all West Virginia’s 55 counties walked off the job last Thursday, noting they were among the lowest paid in the country.

All 100 seats in the House are up for election this year, along with half the 34 seats in the Senate. Teachers have promised to pay close attention to each lawmaker’s actions and vote accordingly.

Justice announced the deal Tuesday evening after meeting with union leaders for teachers in all 55 counties. They’d been expected to return to work Thursday after striking a week earlier, but some strikers said they weren’t satisfied.

“We believe the best course of action at this time is to return to school,” West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said at a news conference. “However we realize that not everyone will.”

Lee said he hoped teachers in the closed counties return to work soon, based on evidence of progress on the pay bill and the fact that the insurance task force has been established.

Justice announced Tuesday night a proposed 5 percent pay raise in the first year, which begins July 1, a more generous offer than a pay raise bill he signed less than a week ago with 2 percent raises.

The governor’s projected $58 million increase in state revenues during that fiscal year would cover the higher raises.

The teachers are also upset over rising costs in the insurance plan covering West Virginia’s public employees, which the Public Employees Insurance Agency has agreed to freeze in the coming year. Justice ordered a task force to find a solution and consider various possible methods including a dedicated additional tax on the state’s growing natural gas production, something teachers have proposed.

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