What was supposed to be a “cooling off” day on Wednesday was anything but at West Virginia’s Capitol.
After Gov. Jim Justice and union leaders had announced a deal to end the teacher strike and send educators and service personnel back to the classroom on Thursday, uncertainty forced all of the state’s counties to call off school yet again.
Thousands of school employees and their supporters returned to the Capitol to demand immediate action on a permanent fix to the health insurance program for state employees and quick action on a proposed pay increase. Both elements play key roles in their demands in what they call efforts to attract and retain quality educators.
Leaders of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association met throughout the day with Justice’s chief of staff, Mike Hall, who said around midday that the governor would not be at the Capitol.
Hall said a pay increase for all state employees is still in the works, and will be addressed in a budget bill — with each agency’s personnel line item to be increased by 3 percent. That plan would have to be addressed by the legislature.
One of the union leaders, Dale Lee, said they believe the next step should be for teachers and service personnel to return to school.
“Now we realize that not everyone will,” said Lee, the president of the West Virginia Education Association.
High school teacher Angie Steffy said she was “satisfied at this point.”
“But, I’m holding out until I see what the Senate does with that vote,” Steffy said, referring to House Bill 4145, which would give teachers, school service personnel and state troopers a 5 percent pay increase this year.
The measure faced a deadline Wednesday to pass in the House, so the chamber suspended constitutional rules and put House Bill 4145 immediately up for a vote. The bill passed 98-1.
Across the rotunda, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who has remained skeptical of the front-loaded pay increases announced in the deal made by Justice and union leaders, said the process appears to be moving too quickly.
“It’s very simple. I’m disappointed that there wasn’t a more thoughtful analysis placed around it,” Carmichael said.
Asked about union leaders’ confidence that House Bill 4145 will pass the Senate, Carmichael said he has yet to begin counting votes.
However, many who have walked off the job in recent days say a permanent fix to health care for public employees remains the biggest priority. Justice announced he had signed an executive order creating a task force to study the program as a means to quell rising costs to the program.
Appointees will include active and retired public employees, representatives of the teacher and service personnel unions, experts on the insurance business and members of the legislature. Two Republicans and one Democrat from each chamber will serve on the task force.
But even with action on pay raises and health care, school closures and delays came rolling in throughout the evening. Some teachers who continued to mill about the Capitol late into the evening said they remain uncertain and plan to stay off the job indefinitely.
“I don’t understand how they can recommend that we get back to school tomorrow when it hasn’t passed through the Senate yet. I’m not ready to go back to school until it’s passed through both the House and the Senate,” said elementary school teacher Chloe Adkins. “As of right now, I think we have seen that we can’t trust that everything that’s said is going to go through.”