Finally, a deal!

Senate recedes and accepts 5 percent raise to end teacher strike

BUCKHANNON — Upshur County Schools are set to reopen this morning after Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill codifying his agreement with the state’s school employees exactly one week after it was first announced.

Superintendent Roy Wager said, “I am surprised. I didn’t think it would happen today, but I’m glad it did. I’m just glad they were able to convince the Senate and we will be able to get back to what we need to be doing —teaching our children.”

Justice first announced he had reached an agreement to end the work stoppage last Tuesday, pledging to give school employees a 5 percent raise, create a task force to study PEIA and eliminate legislation that teachers felt was detrimental to public education.

Within 24 hours, Justice had signed an executive order creating the PEIA task force and the House of Delegates had passed the pay raise bill by a vote of 98-1.

But as the school closings lingered on, the Senate hesitated, questioning the financial viability of the 5 percent raise. Finally, the upper chamber relented on Tuesday and passed the same bill the House had approved nearly a week earlier.

After the bill was signed by the governor, local teachers said they were relieved and ready to get back to work.

“I’m relieved, thankful and glad to be going back to school,” speech language pathologist Beth Pickens said during a final rally at the Upshur County Courthouse Tuesday afternoon. “I want to thank the community and parents for their support, and Mr. Wager and the board for their support. We are thrilled with the support and the gifts of food, kindness, thoughts and prayers.”

Buckhannon-Upshur High School teacher Brent Kimble was also happy to be going back to school.

“I love the idea that I’m going back to school,” Kimble said. “I miss my kids. I love my job and I love working with young people.”

Kimble said the raises are an investment in West Virginia’s future. But he also noted that there is still work to be done to improve public education in the Mountain State.

“I’m elated by the fact that the promise was kept to us at 5 percent and getting the task force,” he said. “Now we have to get everything done. The 5 percent is great and that’s definitely an investment in West Virginia’s future in education. Let’s get the task force off the ground, start looking for a permanent fix for PEIA and continue to grow education as an investment, like our governor has said numerous times.”

Wager traveled to Charleston several times over the past two weeks, including Monday. He said he did not expect the work stoppage to last long — at first.

“It was unprecedented that all 55 counties were together,” Wager said. “In 1990, there were counties that did not go out. I was quite impressed by what the public employees were doing in Charleston, standing their ground.”

As for making up the nine missed days, Wager said he hopes to bring a tentative schedule to the board of education meeting Monday, March 12.

Wager said that spring break may be taken except for Good Friday and Easter Monday.

“We are in good shape as far as make up days available and we will still be out beginning of June,” he said. “I met with principals and directors today. I hope I can get the makeup schedule done by Monday. I go down to Charleston on Friday and we are having a meeting with all the superintendents and will have further discussions.”

In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Justice directed the state superintendent to look at all the options in regards to the 180-day calendar requirement.

The speed at which the bodies pushed through the 5 percent pay raise for teachers, service personnel and state troopers on Tuesday contrasted to what had transpired over the previous two weeks. The action came a day after teachers jammed into the capitol in unprecedented numbers, forcing the state fire marshal’s office to close off public access to the building Monday afternoon.

Locally, teachers said they didn’t feel like the legislature was taking public education seriously by feuding over a 1-percent difference in the proposed raise.

Dan Hepler, a physical education teacher at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School, also pointed to the Senate’s goof, when they accidentally passed the wrong bill on Saturday.

“It shows that they don’t take it serious,” he said. “You aren’t taking it seriously if you are going to make a mistake like that. That’s an oversight that can’t happen at this point. We have all these kids out of school, this being the eighth day. At what point do you take this seriously?”

As they have throughout the work stoppage, volunteers, including teachers and service personnel, worked at the Upshur Parish House for the noon meals and packaged hundreds of bagged dinners.

April Spears, director of Mountain CAP Child Development Center, said that Reinhart went to their different brokers and collected food. Mountain CAP then donated it to the Parish House.

“It is ultimately for the kids in Upshur County,” she said. “We have fruit, assorted cereals, cereal bars, crackers, pizza pockets, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sloppy joe mix, salsa, etc. We are making it so they can still receive nutritional meals while they are still at home.”

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