West Virginia's governor was expected to meet with teacher unions Tuesday afternoon, a union representative said, over a strike that closed the state's public schools for a fourth day.
About 20,000 teachers and 13,000 school service employees hit the picket lines Thursday in all 55 counties to demand better pay and benefits.
In the state Capitol building Tuesday morning, scores of teachers and support staff chanted outside legislative chambers, hoping to pressure lawmakers.
"Fifty-five strong!" they chanted, referring to the counties.
Many lifted homemade signs, with one referring to Gov. Jim Justice: "You love our state, Jim? Prove it."
Wendy Peters, a third-grade teacher who traveled from Daniels, told CNN sister network HLN by phone that the primary issues are pay and insurance. But there are others, such as seniority and less stringent criteria that allow for noncertified teachers -- something Peters doesn't think should happen.
She told "On the Story with Erica Hill" that teachers want to feel "valued and respected."
Peters, who has 16 years of service and says she makes $42,000, said teachers want a wage competitive with surrounding states. "We take care of the most important thing in our state, our children," she said.
The governor was set to meet with representatives a day after unions met with the House speaker, majority leader and other lawmakers, said Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.
The head of the state's largest teacher organization said Monday that small strides had been made in that meeting.
"We had a meeting with House and Senate leadership (Monday) morning, making some progress," said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association. He did not elaborate on the nature of the progress.
Legislation sparked strike
The walkout -- keeping the state's roughly 277,000 public school students out of class -- came after Justice signed legislation late on the night of February 21, granting teachers a 2% pay increase starting in July, followed by 1% pay increases over the next two years.
"We need to keep our kids and teachers in the classroom," Justice said in a statement after signing the pay raise bill. "We certainly recognize our teachers are underpaid and this is a step in the right direction to addressing their pay issue."
But the bill did not address further concerns of teachers, including issues with the teachers' public employees insurance program, the rising costs of health care and a tax on payroll deduction options, according to Campbell.
Many people in West Virginia tell CNN that the high health insurance costs they face are the main sticking point in the work stoppage. That insurance affects all state employees.
Tonya Spinella, a fourth-grade teacher in Mercer County, said rising insurance premiums are "going to be a real issue for us, for our family."
She says she has a second job, teaching English to Chinese children online.
"And really, sometimes the only way we can make ends meet is through my second teaching job and through other little side jobs that I do," she told CNN.
At a strikers' rally Monday at the Capitol, Campbell called for the Public Employees Insurance Agency to be given dedicated revenue and warned that school workers could not deliver the best and brightest students without support.
Lee also told the rally that teachers needed to be at the negotiating table.
The West Virginia School Service Personnel Association is representing the school service staff. Its executive director, Joe White, told the rally it took everybody to educate a child.
"A lot of people are trying to tell us that what you are doing is illegal, but let me remind you what a group of coal miners many years ago -- they stood up against low wages and a lack of benefits, many were beaten, some were killed, but they did not silence their voice," he said. "Your voice and your solidarity is making waves across this nation."
Speaking on Monday to teachers and other school personnel at Wheeling Park High School, Justice said teachers were "swimming upstream" in their attempts to demand higher pay.
"I would tell you that if you look at the numbers and you were me -- and I look at them all the time -- doing any more than what has been done with your pay raise today, you're not going to like this, but it would not be the smart thing to do. It would absolutely be from a financial standpoint a very, very, very dumb move," he said.
"I would tell you, you need to be back in the classroom. Our kids need to be back in the classroom," he said.
Justice said he's aware that teachers are underappreciated and that this was a "challenging time" for them.
Justice also spoke about the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
"There is no humanly way" to address means to fix the agency in a regular legislative session, Justice said.
He said he would call a special session of the Legislature, which would address a natural gas tax that could help better fund the agency. He said he hoped suggestions for solutions would come out of the session by May, a proposal that was met with laughter from the audience.
The pay raise adopted last week, which amounts to 4% over the next few years, is a reduction from an earlier version of the bill that proposed a 5% total increase in wages, Campbell said, noting that teachers in surrounding states make anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 more than teachers in West Virginia.
State Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine said local superintendents met on Sunday to discuss the work stoppage and the possibility of legal action, which could involve an injunction.
While their teachers are picketing, students are getting some support in their communities.
Teachers' unions organized educators and service staff members to work with food pantries to send children home with extra food in advance of the school closures. Some community centers and churches are also hosting programs for students so working parents don't have to stay home.
Teachers walked out before, in 1990; that strike lasted 11 days.
This BBSNews article originally appeared on News | WPLG.