Strike continues, legislature debates raise

PARKERSBURG — Schools will remain closed today despite an initial meeting between state House and Senate representatives to work on a pay raise bill for teachers, service personnel and other public employees.

All 55 counties canceled classes for the ninth day as teachers and service personnel protest low pay and increasing insurance costs.

In Wood County, more than 100 public employees marched from Parkersburg High School to Parkersburg South High School Monday morning, joining picketers already assembled there. Protesters carried signs calling for action on the state’s Public Employees Insurance Agency, or PEIA, and a 5 percent pay increase promised by Gov. Jim Justice last week, as well as thanking the community for its continued support.

“We had over 120 people join us on our walking picket,” said Bruce Boston, president of the Wood County Education Association. “Many people came out of homes and shops to voice their support for education employees.”

“Today’s walking picket was well-received,” said Greg Merritt, president of the Wood County American Federation of Teachers. “We had a good group of employees and community members who encountered a great deal of support along our route.”

Police were called to Parkersburg South around 9:30 a.m. Monday after a man confronted employees on the picket line, calling for them to return to work. Teachers and service personnel said they spoke to him to explain their reasons for the work stoppage, and Parkersburg Police Chief Joe Martin said no citation was issued.

A 2 percent pay raise has been approved by the Legislature and Justice, but last week the governor promised to increase that to 5 percent for teachers and 3 percent for all other employees, in addition to creating a task force to address PEIA. The House passed the bill but included police in the 5 percent increase.

The bill stalled in the Senate where Republican leadership announced it would be sent to the Senate Finance Committee and money for the additional pay raise would instead be put toward PEIA. Discusses lasted throughout the weekend when the committee brought back a 4 percent across-the-board pay increase for all public employees. Teacher and service personnel representatives, as well as the state School Superintendents Association, announced the work stoppage would continue indefinitely until the Senate approved the governor’s promised 5 percent increase.

A conference committee comprised of Senate and House representatives met Monday afternoon to discuss options for the pay raise bill. The committee has about three days to reach a consensus. Even as the committee met Monday, school systems began to close.

Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, is a member of the conference committee, and said Monday his stance would be to uphold the House bill, which was a 5 percent increase. Anderson said he was eager to talk to his Senate counterparts.

“I will meet with senators on the banks of the Kanawha River if that is where they want to meet,” Anderson said during Monday’s floor session of the House. “In speaking with my constituents back home, they want this resolved.”

Though the committee met for more than an hour Monday, legislators adjourned without action. The committee is set to reconvene at 9 this morning, and legislators have indicated they may bring motions for a vote.

Union leadership accused Senate Republicans of blocking immediate action and stonewalling the committee process.

“It is frustrating for teachers, school service personnel, parents, and students to see our state held hostage by a few people in the Senate,” Boston said. “We hope the conference committee can finally resolve this situation and resolve it quickly.”

“I continue to voice my concerns for the future of this great state,” Merritt said. “Economic growth is clearly tied to educational opportunities. The West Virginia Legislature includes some folks who are trying to do the right thing. The longer it takes for the governor’s proposal to materialize into a signed bill, the more distrust and frustration is felt by public employees.”

Merritt said he, like other state employees, wants to see the work stoppage end.

“We care about our students academic success and want to see a guarantee for their success as they leave the school system and enter the job market or college,” he said. “We are all watching the Capitol with baited breath, hoping to see lawmakers follow through on campaign promises. The members of the West Virginia Legislature have a tremendous opportunity to show their trust in public education. They can give our children hope.”