CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The storm that’s about to happen hasn’t hit West Virginia for almost 30 years.
Today, thousands of teachers and service personnel will be on the picket line — rather than in the classroom — all over West Virginia.
The last time that happened was 1990 — and even then it was only the teachers.
This time it’s bus drivers, school cooks, maintenance workers, teachers and other school employees from all of West Virginia’s 55 counties.
Here are the numbers for those who could be rallying at the Capitol or on picket lines at their schools:
18,900 classroom teachers.
If you include classroom teachers and principals and administrators, it’s 24,000.
Then mix in 13,500 service workers.
“We can’t stop this,” Joe White, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, told members of the West Virginia Board of Education during an emergency meeting on Wednesday.
School employees have said for weeks that the average 1 percent pay raise initially proposed by Gov. Jim Justice isn’t enough. They also have called their out-of-pocket health care costs out of control. And they say they’ve been insulted by some of the education reform legislation that’s been considered.
Now it’s all coming to a head.
“Nobody wants to go on strike. Teachers don’t want to go on strike,” Mary Schwertferger, a Brooke High School teacher with almost 40 years experience, said last week during a rally at the Capitol.
She walked out of the classroom the last time there was a West Virginia teachers strike, in 1990.
So did Dan “Coach” McKinney, a Hurricane High School teacher.
“Then it was a teachers strike. Now it’s a public employees issue. It’s a little different. But it’s better in the fact that everybody realizes the parliament there in that building is not taking us seriously,” McKinney said at a public employees’ rally at the Capitol.
“I don’t think they realize we were given those insurance benefits 30 years ago in lieu of pay raises. Now they’re just taking it back.”
The situation snowballed, even as legislators and Justice proposed improvements.
Justice proposed an average 1 percent raise.
The Senate officially made it 1 percent every year for five years.
The House front-loaded it with 2 percent the first year.
So, from where it started, it was more generous by the time it passed the Legislature and was signed by the governor this week, but teachers said it still wasn’t enough.
And to teachers, the raises seemed out of step with the economic turnaround that Governor Justice described during his State of the State address.
“When you’re saying happy days are here again and the sky is blue in West Virginia, to teachers that’s not enough,” Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, told lawmakers on Wednesday.
Before the House Education Committee on Wednesday afternoon, Lee strongly hinted at 5 percent the first year.
“Why don’t we frontload the 5 percent?” Lee asked.
There has been movement on the Public Employees Insurance Agency too.
Public employees said the Go365 program, which gave them a break if they kept a log demonstrating good health habits, was an invasion of privacy. Justice proposed making it voluntary, not mandatory.
Employees objected to having their premiums set by total family income. Justice said families where both earn their bread from the state should just be averaged out. He also proposed collapsing an unpopular tier system.
Eventually Justice proposed — and the PEIA Finance Board agreed — to just freeze the whole system the way it had been. That will cost an estimated $29 million, and lawmakers are still trying to figure out where to find the money.
These concerns are all intertwined. As public employees will tell you, pay in West Virginia was never great and raises have been relatively rare. But state leaders tended to give more on benefits, including health care.
In the past few years, as health care costs have skyrocketed for everyone, that deal wasn’t what it used to be.
The concerns of teachers and other public employees — and their very vocal presence in the Capitol — has made lawmakers stand up and take notice, House Speaker Tim Armstead said this week.
“I think when we started this session we all came here hoping we’d be able to do as much as we could do in this budget to help our teachers and state employees,” said Armstead, R-Kanawha.
“Throughout this process, their presence here has made certain concerns known that we acted upon.”
House Education Chairman Paul Espinosa echoed those remarks.
“My preference would be that our students be in school. While I appreciate the fact that our teachers and school service personnel are concerned about not only their salaries but their benefits I think it’s pretty clear that we’ve taken some pretty serious action on both of those fronts,” Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said.
“If you look at what passed out of the House yesterday, essentially we passed a $119 million multi-year pay raise that represents the largest teacher pay raise in decades.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael agreed that the pay raise was better than first proposed. He has said for weeks that this is what the state can afford now, as it emerges from what amounted to an economic depression.
“This is all we can do,” Carmichael said Wednesday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
Carmichael said the business of the Senate will go on as usual, even as educators gather in the galleries and the hallways. On Wednesday, he called the strike the result of fire-fanning by “union bosses” and said, accurately, that it is illegal under West Virginia law.
“The teachers we all know would, in my view, would take a dim view if a student started acting this way,” said Carmichael, R-Jackson.
This has happened in West Virginia before, of course. In March, 1990, with similar complaints about wages and health insurance, teachers went out on an 11-day strike.
The current Senate Minority Leader, Roman Prezioso, was a new delegate back then. Speaking Wednesday afternoon, Prezioso recalled that conditions were actually worse because doctors weren’t accepting the insurance offered by the state.
“When Governor Caperton came in we were bankrupt for all intents of purposes,” said Prezioso, D-Marion.
There were some differences too. This time the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia are united. Back then, the AFT was an upstart. Last time, it was just teachers. This time, it’s service personnel too.
Last time, the governor and the Legislature reached consensus to raise taxes. This time, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone betting on the Republican-led Legislature to embrace a tax increase.
“Of course this year I don’t hear anyone speak in favor of raising taxes,” said Howard O’Cull, director of the West Virginia School Board Association. “I hear taking money from other areas proposed to be spent.”
There’s another factor in the current situation, one that is also factoring into the upcoming election. When the Legislature flipped to Republican control in 2014, it meant the new majority was more inclined toward a market focus. It had a business influence, and it wanted change.
This year, that may be seen in a variety of legislation, including bills that would alter how much teacher seniority is weighed, that would affect union president pensions or that would require teachers union members to validate annually any union dues that are deducted from their paychecks.
The feeling has also flowed to programs establishing vouchers.
“We’re seeing a legislative leadership that’s wanting to move into a more market-driven way for education, and that creates a lot of angst among educators, school board members and others,” O’Cull said.
“Those ideas have never been adopted by this legislature. But it kind of puts a fear into established education groups, including ours. What we may be seeing here is an attempt to say we’ve had enough of these policies, and these policies will hurt education. It’s messing up the status quo, who fits in where.”
O’Cull summed up, “You’re beginning to see there may be chaffing that there may be more of this in the future if the Legislature moves more in a conservative direction and now may be the time to arrest that.’
So the showdown starts today.
Where and how does it stop? No one interviewed for this story seemed to know. Republican legislative leaders and Governor Justice were still trying to encourage educators to stay off the picket line entirely.
Prezioso thinks the storm will just get stronger.
“I think eventually it’ll have to get a whole lot worse before it gets better,” Prezioso said.
He was at the Capitol in 1990 when Caperton, a fresh governor with a business executive background, would collar legislators and state his vision. Eventually, Caperton and the Legislature put out the fire.
Governor Justice will have to get more involved if he hopes to solve this crisis, Prezioso said.
“The governor’s going to have to come in and take control of this situation,” Prezioso said. “I think the climate throughout the state with parents and teachers, you know, eventually it’s going to grow to a boiling point and he’s going to have to take some action.”