West Virginia teachers continue strike, await Senate action

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - A public school strike in West Virginia entered its second week as teachers balked at returning to the classroom in all 55 counties. Instead, they went back to the state Capitol on Thursday to monitor the Legislature's progress on a 5 percent pay raise for them.

The state Senate was expected to consider Gov. Jim Justice's proposed raise that passed the House of Delegates 98-1 Wednesday. Senate President Mitch Carmichael expressed skepticism about the governor's suddenly higher projected tax revenues that would pay for the pay boosts but said that chamber would review it.

So teachers turned out in force to let their frustrations out with chants and signs that included the hashtag "55strong."

Jacob Staggers, a sixth grade teacher at South Middle School in Morgantown, said Thursday outside the state Senate chambers that if Carmichael isn't sure about the pay raise bill's chances, "how do they expect us to go back into the classroom when that's the communication coming from the leader of the Senate?

"We don't trust the Senate," he said.

Justice also announced this week he's forming a task force to find a solution to rising costs in the insurance plan covering West Virginia public employees. The Public Employees Insurance Agency has agreed to freeze rates in the coming year.

Staggers said teachers want to know the task force's makeup and expectations "because our insurance is what sent us out of the classroom."

Teachers and service personnel in all West Virginia's 55 counties walked off the job Feb. 22, noting they were among the lowest paid in the country.

The pay raise announced by Justice on Tuesday night for the fiscal year starting July 1 is a more generous offer than a pay raise bill he signed less than a week ago with 2 percent raises.

The governor's projected $58 million increase in state revenues during that fiscal year would cover the higher raises.

Under his announcement, teachers were supposed to return to classes Thursday. But union locals from individual counties met throughout the state Wednesday and one by one they decided to stay out despite recommendations from state union and education leaders to end the strike.

"We believe the best course of action at this time is to return to school," West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said Wednesday night. "However we realize that not everyone will."

Lee said he hoped teachers would return to work soon, based on evidence of progress on the pay bill and the fact that the insurance task force has been established.

All 100 seats in the House are up for election this year, along with half the 34 seats in the Senate. Teachers have promised to pay close attention to each lawmaker's actions and vote accordingly.

On Wednesday teachers occupied the House galleries to watch the vote.

"We would not be here looking at this had they not stood up and said enough is enough is enough is enough," said Delegate Rick Moye, a Raleigh County Democrat. What they really want most is a permanent funding fix to offset rising insurance costs, he added.

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