Senate alters teacher deal

Schools closed indefinitely after Senate reduces governor’s agreement

BUCKHANNON — Upshur County Schools would be in session today if the West Virginia Senate had upheld its end of the bargain Gov. Jim Justice struck with union leaders Tuesday night, Upshur County Superintendent of Schools Roy Wager said Sunday afternoon.

Wager said he watched with disappointment as the Senate Finance Committee on Saturday evening amended the House Bill 4145, which, if passed by both legislative bodies, would have given teachers, school personnel and state troopers a 5 percent raise effective July 1. The amendment introduced by Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, reduced that amount to 4 percent.

“If they had agreed to the 5 percent and it had been voted on [and passed] Saturday night, we would be having school,” Wager said. Instead, Upshur and most other counties had already announced today’s closures early Sunday afternoon.

After Justice and the unions reached an agreement Tuesday night, the state House of Delegates passed the 5 percent pay raises within 24 hours. The Senate, however, did not put the bill on the agenda until Saturday.

Wager said he traveled to Charleston — as did 44 other county superintendents — to meet with Senate president Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson.

“I was there Friday meeting with Carmichael and the governor,” Wager said. “There were 45 superintendents there total. It didn’t go well.”

Wager said Carmichael was inflexible and unwilling to consider other viewpoints or solutions to the work stoppage, which commenced Thursday, Feb. 22.

“He really didn’t want to bend,” Wager said. “It was like it was his way or the highway. There was so much that didn’t make sense.”

When Wager asked Carmichael if HB 4145 would be on the Senate Finance Committee agenda Saturday — after Carmichael sent it to committee rather than the Senate floor — Carmichael said he “wasn’t sure.”

“I said, ‘I need to tell my people if it’s going to be on [the agenda] Saturday and discussed,’” Wager recounted. “He said, ‘I don’t know what’s on the agenda.’ He’s the president; how does he not know?”

The superintendents then met with Justice, who seemed sincerely disappointed the Senate had sent the bill to the Finance Committee rather than to the floor for a vote, Wager said.

“[Justice] is very frustrated, and thinks they should have done the 5 percent,” Wager said. “He truly wants [the strike] over. He made an agreement with the organizations, and he told the Senate and the House that that was the agreement and they needed to pass it, and he was very frustrated. He seemed sincere.”

The feeling among the rest of the superintendents, Wager said, was also frustration.

“We’re upset that the Senate doesn’t want to bend,” he said. “We support the teachers and service personnel and state troopers, and they need the 5 percent. They are willing to go back to school with that, even if they don’t have a fix for PEIA, and Carmichael didn’t want to listen to that.”

The deal Justice announced Tuesday had several components: a 5 percent pay raise for teachers, service personnel and state troopers; the creation of a task force to devise a long-term funding solution for PEIA; and the elimination of several bills that teachers felt were an attack on public education by lowering teaching standards, removing seniority benefits and abolishing automatic union dues payments.

Wager said the county superintendents are standing in solidarity with teachers and school personnel.

“The superintendents are united behind them,” he said. “We can’t get teachers because we can’t pay them well enough. It’s very bad.”

West Virginia currently has more than 700 openings for qualified teachers.

Wager said that although he hasn’t spoken with Boso — who introduced the amendment that ultimately scuttled the deal — Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, approached him after Friday’s meeting.

“Mr. Karnes came up to me because he knows I’m the superintendent of Upshur County Schools,” Wager said. “He’s not going to change his vote; that’s my feeling. We really didn’t talk much.”

Boso told the finance committee his amendment was about fairness and financial soundness. He also favors a 4 percent raise for all other state employees to be included in the upcoming budget bill. Reducing the teacher and trooper raise by 1 percent would save the state about $17 million, he said. That’s slightly less than one-half of one percent of the state’s $4.4 billion budget.

The Senate ultimately passed the bill with the reduced raise, 19-13, although it took two tries. The first time, the Senate goofed and accidentally passed the 5 percent pay raise, before recalling that bill and passing the 4 percent version.

Within minutes, a united House of Delegates rejected the Senate version by a vote of 94-0.

Now a conference committee has three days to hash out some sort of agreement.

Members of that committee include two Republicans and one Democrat from the House of Delegates and two Republicans and one Democrat from the Senate. Members include Sen. Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio; Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley; Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne; Del. Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, Del. Bill Anderson, R-Wood; and Del. Brent Boggs, D-Braxton.

Following Saturday’s night’s events, the West Virginia Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and West Virginia School Service personnel issued a joint statement admonishing Carmichael and the Senate and saying public schools in West Virginia will be closed until the 5 percent bill is passed.

“Senator Carmichael and the Senate leadership team leave us no choice — all public schools in West Virginia will be closed again and remain closed until the Senate honors the agreement that was made,” the statement says.

Back in Upshur County, rain, wind, snow or sun, teachers, school personnel and other public employees vowed the fight wasn’t done. Protesting along Route 20 during the day and in front of the Upshur County Courthouse in the evening, teachers and school personnel said they want more than promises — they want to see something in writing.

“PEIA is why most of the folks are here, and I think I can speak for most of them,” said Darrell Gould, who has been a bus driver in the Upshur County School system for nearly 27 years.

“If they did what they were planning on doing [with PEIA], our raise wasn’t going to amount to anything,” Gould said.

Gould says he’s skeptical of the governor’s 17-month freeze on PEIA monthly premiums and the executive order issued Wednesday calling for a task force to hammer out a long-term solution for the health insurance plan.

“I need to see something in writing,” he said. “Something definite.”

And as to how he feels teachers and school personnel are being treated by the legislature?

“I think they are treating us like a bunch of dummies,” Gould said. “I’d be a fool to say, ‘No, I don’t want a raise,’ but the insurance is why we’ve been out here for over a week. Instead, they keep making it look like we’re greedy and we just want more money, when that’s not the main issue for most people.”

The plan preferred by many of the teachers rallying in Charleston has been a 2.5 percent increase in the natural gas severance tax, with that money being devoted to PEIA.

Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, addressed the funding issue in a Facebook video posted after the Senate vote Saturday night.

“It’s a shame,” Ojeda said. “It’s almost as if they want to keep the teachers on strike because they want to create division with other people, parents and people like that, against our teachers.

“Who have been the winners in this legislative session? Big energy and big pharma. They keep talking about how they don’t have the money.”

But Ojeda contested that claim, pointing to a $140 million tax cut Republicans had proposed for businesses.

“We could [give raises to all public employees], if we had the guts,” Ojeda said.
“We tried to do the gas severance, they voted it down. We tried to do a severance on the actual wells, they voted it down. We tried to put a penny on every milligram of opioids that are being distributed in our state, they voted it down. That’s what we’re dealing with here. But of course we have enough money to take off the [business] equipment and inventory tax. I’ll tell you what, ladies and gentlemen, this is absolutely unacceptable.”

Back in Upshur County, Randy Revels, a ninth- through 12th-grade math teacher at Buckhannon-Upshur High School, held up a sign with Carmichael’s name and phone number listed on it in large print.

Carmichael is a key player “because he has control over what bills actually make it to the floor to get voted on, and I feel that he is intentionally stalling to get the public on his side to be mad at the teachers,” Revels said Friday, at which point the Senate had not even placed the bill on the agenda. “The deal that the union leaders made for us was, we were going to get a raise, we were going to get a task force for PEIA, and in exchange, we were going to go back to school today and yesterday. None of their bargain has held up, so that’s why we’re still out here.”

Social media is one tool the movement has utilized to bolster momentum and broaden support, Revels added.

“I think it’s helped us stay positive about what we’re doing, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there intentionally to break up this movement, and it’s allowed us to stay connected and stay strong and understand what we’re fighting for is important.”

Susan King, a retired teacher who has logged 40 years in the Upshur County school system in a variety of capacities, also said social media was key to keeping protesters motivated this time around. Facebook has made a difference between the 1990 statewide teacher strike and the current one, she said.

“This is probably the first time in my career, in my 40 years, that I have seen a #55United and #55Strong stand in this state,” King said. “And probably social media has had something to do with this, because before it was very difficult to communicate with people from the panhandle or from the southern part of the state. Now, you can watch online as counties close and are standing together, and that’s the difference — taking a stand and taking a stand together because it is such an important cause.”

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