Public schools in West Virginia did not open as expected on Thursday, after teachers rejected an offer by Republican Governor Jim Justice they say comes nowhere near meeting their demands. Justice offered the promise of a pay raise to teachers, but a permanent fix to the state's health coverage for public employees was not included.
I miss my students. I was ready to go back tomorrow. But, we are #55united, #55strong. We are staying out so we can keep teaching and stay in WV, so we don't have to leave the profession or the state to make enough to get by. I'll see my students on the picket line!— Emily Helton (@MsHeltonReads) March 1, 2018
The Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) is currently being funded by the state's "rainy day" fund with planned premium increases and benefit cuts frozen until 2019, but teachers are demanding a permanent fix to ensure that out-of-pocket costs don't rise.
Teachers returned to the state capitol on Wednesday evening with many chanting, "A freeze is not a fix!" and "We got sold out!"
"PEIA is the reason this started, and all they've given us so far is five percent pay raise that hasn’t been passed, so in our book nothing has been fixed, it's not in stone," Brandon Wolford, president of Mingo County's WVEA branch, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail late Wednesday.
The pay raise passed in the state House on Wednesday, but state Senate president Mitch Carmichael has been dismissive of the proposal, telling the MetroNews on Tuesday that "It would be completely frivolous and ridiculous to embrace this proposal this far down the [legislative] session."
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On Wednesday, Justice issued an executive order establishing a task force, including public employees and union representatives, to find a permanent fix to PEIA—an announcement that was met with mixed enthusiasm from teachers.
"I don't know why it's going to take a task force to just say there has to be more funding," Adam Culver, a middle school teacher in Cabell County told the Gazette-Mail. "You can't just fudge numbers and decide that there's a new revenue, there has to be an actual revenue source."
The teachers are also demanding that employee seniority be protected in terms of issuing raises and promotions, an end to taxpayer-funded private school vouchers and charter schools, and protections for payroll deductions.
"We have assurances that pieces of legislation that we oppose will not move throughout the remainder of the [legislative] session," WVEA President Dale Lee said Wednesday.
Lee had expected teachers to return to school Thursday, but affirmed that the union supported the members' decision to continue the strike.