West Virginia Senate meets as teachers strike

A critical meeting Saturday in the West Virginia Senate stands between a teachers' strike continuing into its eighth school day and the return of nearly 300,000 students to the classroom.

At issue is a contentious bill that would fund pay raises for striking teachers and service personnel across the state's 55 counties.

A tentative deal struck this week by Gov. Jim Justice and unions representing about 20,000 teachers and 13,000 school service employees was tabled in the Senate Finance Committee.

Saturday's meeting comes after the Senate declined to take a vote on the proposed 5% pay raise and, one day earlier, canceled a session on the matter at the last minute. The House of Delegates approved the bill Wednesday night.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael and other Republican legislators maintain the state cannot afford raises that would end the walkout by some of the lowest-paid educators in the country.

Union leadership and school superintendents have insisted they will not return to the classroom unless the bill clears all legislative hurdles.

A continuation of the impasse this weekend would mean the battle for better benefits and higher pay could keep schools closed Monday, and possibly, through next week.

The bill proposes a 5 percent pay hike for teachers in the first year -- more than the 4 percent total raise (spaced over three years) the Legislature initially passed.

The deal did not include a fix to the state health insurance plan, the Public Employees Insurance Agency, or PEIA, which employees say requires them to pay premiums that are too high. The status of PEIA was a major reason for the strike, according to educators.

The teachers are eager to return to work but need more than a promise by the Legislature, Joe White, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, told CNN.

"What people have got to understand is that this is not something that has happened overnight," he said Friday.

"This is something that has accumulated over the years. And (teachers and service personnel have) been lied to. And the trust factor, right now, is kind of slim. ... What we'd like to see is things go back to normal, and they live up to an agreement and we move forward."

Legislators, however, remain unsure about the financing.

The hike proposed in the bill hinges on new projected state revenue numbers that the governor announced earlier this week.

Carmichael has said he finds the projections hard to believe and wants to examine them more closely.

"We are absolutely bound by our duty to evaluate that with a fine-tooth comb," he said. "We're very skeptical."

The proposed deal also called for the creation of a task force to address union concerns over the public employees insurance program.

Justice appointed the first members of the task force Friday and announced they will meet for the first time on March 13.

Teachers and service personnel have been on strike since Feb. 22, shutting down public schools across the state for seven school days.

Educators, school staff and their supporters have descended on the state Capitol, holding daily rallies outside legislative chambers where they chant "55 United," a reference to West Virginia's 55 counties. Local pickets have gone up across the state as well.

This BBSNews article was syndicated from News | WPLG, and written by News | WPLG. Read the original article here.

This BBSNews article originally appeared on News | WPLG.