CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Even as closures rolled out again for West Virginia schools, members of a conference committee set up to work out differences between the Senate and House on pay raises for educators already seems to be split.

The conference committee recessed a little after 5 p.m. with no resolution. Many of the members urged the conference work to resume later this evening, noting that it’s important to make progress toward opening schools. The meeting was expected to be streamed although recent interest has caused significant buffering.

Schools across West Virginia were announcing closures Monday evening, prompted by a lack of resolution in the Legislature.

Being out Tuesday would signify the 9th instructional day missed by West Virginia schools since the work stoppage began over pay and health insurance issues.

During an afternoon meeting of the conference committee, Senators Ryan Ferns and Craig Blair, both Republicans, expressed skepticism of the governor’s updated revenue numbers that allowed him to support average 5 percent raises for teachers.

Ferns and Blair expressed support for an average 4 percent raise for all state employees.

The rest of the committee members have supported the 5 percent, which was already passed 98-1 by the House.

File photo

Paul Espinosa

“I think it’s clear from the action of the House that the only viable way to get our students back to school is to move forward with the 5 percent that moved out of the House,” said one of the conference committee members, Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson.

A strict majority of the conference committee doesn’t matter.

In favor of the 5 percent are Delegates Espinosa and Bill Anderson, both Republicans, and Delegate Brent Boggs, a Democrat. They are joined by Senator Bob Plymale, a Democrat.

A majority of each house on the conference committee is required to approve the report that would go to the House and Senate and complete the committee’s work.

So either Blair or Ferns would need to be swayed to embrace the 5 percent.

Or, alternatively, they would need to bring two delegates over to their position.

File

Craig Blair

“What we’re debating about is the 4 percent or the 5 percent or something in between,” Blair told committee members as the afternoon session ended. “Frankly, I believe the superintendents of schools and the teachers should all go back to the classroom now.

“So when we’re talking about going through this process, I think they should be gearing up, getting back in the classroom, showing a good faith effort as well. I move we adjourn.”

After this afternoon’s meeting, that left the leaders of West Virginia’s unions representing educators complaining that Blair and Ferns were holding up the raise issue.

Gov. Jim Justice, speaking this morning on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” said the committee should have met much sooner.

“It’s a sad day in West Virginia, in my opinion,” Justice said. “One way, what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to meet. We should have been meeting yesterday. I have no clue why we’re not meeting. I was ready to go all day yesterday.”

Justice said he would like to talk with members of the Senate majority.

“I am pleading with the Senate to let me talk to all the Republican senators,” Justice said. “I need to talk with ’em and I can’t get in front of ’em and that’s a real problem.”

Ferns, R-Ohio, spoke with reporters before today’s floor session. Ferns said the Senate majority is willing to consider other positions on the pay raise issue.

“We’re willing to listen to any ideas. We’ve been open-minded the entire time,” Ferns said. “The only conversation we weren’t a part of was the one where the governor decided to suddenly raise revenue estimates by $58 million, and he did that in a vacuum with union leadership.”

But Ferns said the Senate Finance Committee staff has crunched numbers, leading him to believe an average 4 percent figure is what the state budget can handle for the next fiscal year.

“We’re willing to take every available dollar that state government has that’s not going to an essential service and dedicating it towards public employees. Every single dollar,” Ferns said.

“So to whatever extent the House has suggestions of a compromise position that doesn’t cause us to risk blowing a hole in the budget we’re open to that.”

Educators and others wrapped around the outside of West Virginia’s Capitol today as teachers rallied and schools were closed for the eighth day.

There was such a crowd that Capitol Police became concerned about midday and, at least temporarily, shut down the entrances for the general public.

Thousands have jammed into the Capitol on prior days, and the lines outside by mid-morning gave the impression that this could be the biggest crowd yet.

The state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety said that as of 11 a.m. the Capitol Police had admitted 3,700 people to the building.

More than 5,000 visitors had entered through the East and West Wing public entrances by about noon.

Shortly after 1 p.m., the department said the size and density of the crowd prompted a capacity concern from the Capitol Police and state Fire Marshal. No further visitors — with electronic access cards — were being admitted at that point.

“I definitely think it’s the biggest crowd. Yes, 100 percent it’s big,” said Pam Stollings, a teacher from Logan County. “I think what’s motivating people is just the complete and utter lack of understanding from the Senate.”

Educators are trying to get the state Senate majority to agree to an average 5 percent raise, saying that, plus a task force on health insurance, is the key to re-opening West Virginia schools.

Republicans in the Senate, over the weekend, instead proposed and passed an average 4 percent raise.

They made two points about that: They aren’t ready to trust new revenue estimates announced by Gov. Jim Justice right after he was confronted by upset educators. And GOP senators also say they could extend 4 percent raises to all state employees.

The House of Delegates refused to accept that plan, saying 5 is the magic number.

The difference is described as about $13 million out of the state’s general fund of more than $4 billion.

The raise is actually a flat rate. Each percentage point for teachers actually amounts to an additional $404 a year.

So for teachers the debate is a difference between an additional $1,616 a year or $2,020.

The impasse led to the establishment of a conference committee.

 

Plymale said the conference committee needs to reach a resolution. This is the last week of the regular 60-day session.

“There’s only one point of disagreement and basically you have to have two members of each side sign the conference committee report of whatever you do,” Plymale said. “I’m strongly on the 5 percent side.”

If the conference committee would fail, so would the bill being considered.

“That would be a disaster to let this bill die,” Plymale said. “My opinion is, we’ve got time to do it. We have three days from when we started. And so the clock is ticking. We need to make a decision.”

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