UPDATE — 3/6, 6:50 p.m. EST: West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed legislation late Tuesday giving all state employees a five percent pay increase over the next four years, ending the statewide nine-day teachers’ strike.
In order to free up funds for the increase, which amounts to the first raise for Mountain State educators in four years, legislators were forced to make $20 million in other spending reductions.
Following suit to West Virginia’s success, the National Education Association’s Oklahoma chapter will begin a strike Thursday to protest teacher pay which ranks second-lowest in the nation.
A state-wide teachers strike went into its fourth day on Tuesday, as approximately 30,000 West Virginia public educators and support staff continued their walkout over pay and benefits.
The strike encompasses 680 schools at all levels in 55 counties and over 277,000 students.
“Our issues are clear — our commitment to finding a solution has been consistent, we stand together for our students, our community and our state. We challenge the House leader, the Senate leader, and the governor, to bring us to the table today. We are ready, we are willing, we stand on the right side of public education by being back here and outside our schools tomorrow because we are 55 united.” said Christine Campbell, president of the state arm of the American Federation of Teachers union.
A controversy revolving around Gov. Jim Justice affixing his signature to Senate Bill 267 last week which gave teachers a four percent raise over the next three years — totaling just over $1,600 by 2021 — public educators claim the pay increases do not go far enough. A previous legislative initiative would have raised teachers’ salaries by five percent over a similar time period.
West Virginia teachers are also grumbling over the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), a state-run health insurance program which was facing a mandatory premium hike. Justice signed off on freezing premium and rate increases for all state employees for one year, but Mountain State educators concerned about escalating healthcare costs seek a long-term solution.
According to the National Education Association, the average public school teacher in West Virginia made less than $46,000 per year in 2017, well below the national average of $58,950.
Despite the outrage of some public educators with salaries low enough to qualify for welfare benefits, Gov. Justice effectively told teachers at a town hall meeting in Wheeling, W.Va., Monday the state doesn’t currently have enough money in its budget to boost their wages.
“Doing any more than what has been done with your pay raise today . . . would not be the smart thing to do,” he said. “It would absolutely be from a financial standpoint a very, very, very dumb move.”
Instead, Justice has proposed increasing severance taxes on natural gas companies to raise enough money to give West Virginia teachers a raise and supplement the PEIA fund — a plan opposed by Republican state House Speaker Tim Armstead.
Specifically, the governor wants to add the tax hike provision to an existing bill that would allow natural gas drillers to exploit natural resources on land with the consent of only 75 percent of property owners.
According to West Virginia’s American Federation of Teachers spokeswoman Jennifer Wood, there are currently over 700 teaching vacancies in the state.
[USA Today] [CNN] [Charleston Gazette-Mail] [NBC News] [Photo courtesy AP/John Raby via CNN]