CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In a motion that confused those who heard it, the state school board authorized Superintendent Steve Paine and board president Tom Campbell to enter discussions with the Justice administration and the Attorney General’s office about an impending school walkout.
Paine and Campbell, who were present when the motion was made at the end of an emergency meeting that lasted several hours, quickly slipped back behind a closed door and weren’t seen again.
Speculation had been heavy that the board was considering authorization of an injunction pursued by the Attorney General’s office, which represents state agencies.
But the motion didn’t say either way.
The swift departure of Paine and Campbell left Perry to explain his motion.
He read it again to reporters:
“I move that the superintendent and president of the West Virginia Board of Education meet with the executive branch and the Attorney General’s office to effectively communicate what has been accomplished to meet the requests of education and service personnel.
“We pledge to continue to understand the complications of the funding needs of the public education system and communicate those needs to a governor who has been supportive of education and to the Legislature that has shown responsiveness and willingness to change.
“Our educational system is vital to the future of our children and our state economy. Our professionals are indispensable to that success. Above all, we pledge to always put the needs and interests of the students at the forefront of our actions and decisions.”
Asked to explain, Perry summed up that it authorized Paine and Campbell to meet with the Justice administration and with the Attorney General’s office.
State school board members and Paine spent more than an hour behind closed doors on Wednesday with Kelli Talbott, an assistant attorney general who typically works on education issues.
A couple of hours after that, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued his own statement, saying he’s ready to take action if requested. But it stopped short of saying the office will seek an injunction.
“Our office is prepared to support any relevant state agency or board with legal remedies they may choose to pursue to uphold the law,” Morrisey stated. “We also stand ready to assist and support any county board of education or county superintendent to enforce the law.”
There’s precedent through the Attorney General’s office to say a work stoppage would be illegal.
In 1990, the last time teachers walked out in West Virginia, then-Attorney General Roger Tompkins delivered an opinion to then-State School Superintendent Hank Marockie.
“There is no right to strike against the state. Thus, any strike or concerted work stoppage by public teachers of this state is illegal.”
Tompkins opinion was based on a series of previous rulings by the Attorney General’s Office, as well as court decisions. He cited a 1970 federal court decision supporting Governor Arch Moore’s decision to fire striking State Road Commission employees.
Paine, on Tuesday, released a statement. Part of it specified that work stoppages are illegal for West Virginia Public employees.
“Work stoppages by public employees are not lawful in West Virginia and will have a negative impact on student instruction and classroom time. Families will be forced to seek out alternative safe locations for their children, and our many students who depend on schools for daily nutrition will face an additional burden,” he stated.
“I encourage our educators to advocate for the benefits they deserve, but to seek courses of action that have the least possible disruption for our students.”
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee had not heard the motion made at the school board meeting. He said he hopes Paine and the school board will consider the needs of teachers and school personnel.
“I would hope that state Superintendent Paine and the school board would look at all options and try to help continue to support teachers by realizing we need competitive pay and the benefit structure, and we need to support public education,” Lee said.
“I also realize that state Superintendent Paine has a job to do, and he’s in charge of providing for all the schools in the state of West Virginia.”
On Tuesday, even as they were passing a pay increase for teachers and service personnel that starts with an average 2 percent next year, the Republican majority in the Legislature underscored that a work stoppage of public employees is illegal in West Virginia.
“It’s clearly illegal,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael told reporters on Tuesday. “It is very disappointing. I hope the people of West Virginia look at this and say, ‘Really, you’re going to walk out over a pay raise, an insurance freeze and lock the doors to our schools.
“I call upon them to do the right thing, reconsider and teach our kids.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said a walkout would be damaging to the needs of students.
“I believe, and I think this house believes very strongly that that would be damaging to our students, that they do not need to do that to get our attention,” Armstead said Tuesday evening.
“They have our attention, and we’ve acted on the fact that they have our attention. And we want to continue to work through additional issues. I hope that they will reconsider not being in the classroom.”