CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A statewide teacher walkout that has closed schools for four days may end with Gov. Jim Justice’s proposal to raise teacher salaries by an average 5 percent and set up a task force on health insurance.
The announcement came after meetings much of the afternoon with the leaders of West Virginia’s teachers and service personnel unions.
“This is the beginning of better things to happen,” said Christine Campbell, president of the West Virginia Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.
Justice plans to pay for the raises educators and other public employees by bumping up revenue estimates, a proposal already under scrutiny by legislative leaders.
Under Justice’s proposal, teachers and other school system employees would receive an average 5 percent raise. Other state workers would receive a 3 percent raise.
A task force would be set up to stabilize the Public Employees Insurance Agency. An additional PEIA investment would be $20 million.
The Justice administration said the total cost for raises next year is $86 million.
So the total additional investment in education is more than $100 million.
The revenue estimate for fiscal year 2019 would go up by an additional $58 million under Justice’s framework.
“All of it works,” Justice told a crowd of reporters, teachers union officials and other state officials.
A bill would have to be drafted and passed for the raises to go forward.
Teachers union leaders who gathered for the announcement with Justice said Wednesday will serve as a cooling off day.
They then expect for teachers and service personnel to return to school on Thursday but say it’s possible a walkout could resume if the Legislature should reject Justice’s proposal.
“We know this is a 3-legged stool with the House and the Senate. We want to make sure everything is progressing nicely,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.
The leaders of the unions said their members would prefer to settle matters.
“Our folks look forward to going back to work,” said Joe White, president of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.
State School Superintendent Steve Paine put out a statement saying he expects school systems to get back to normal later this week.
“I am officially calling for Wednesday, Feb. 28 to be a day of preparation for all public school systems in West Virginia,” Paine stated.
“I am expecting all schools across the state to be open on Thursday, March 1 and have asked each county superintendent to direct employees to report at normal time on that date to resume the school year.”
Mike Hall, the governor’s chief of staff was asked what credence people should give updated revenue figures borne of necessity.
Hall cited recent gross domestic product improvement, the recent federal tax cut and an uptick in national economic performance.
“With the growth in the economy that happens nationally, and we’re seeing evidence of this here and there, it’s not irresponsible to project these numbers,” Hall said.
Last year, at the climax of an impasse over the state budget, the Justice administration announced a revenue bump based on anticipated economic growth from a statewide road bond package.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, speaking outside the Senate chamber after Justice made his announcement, was still trying to figure out the revenue maneuver.
“There’s some incredibly troubling inconsistencies with the message,” said Carmichael, R-Jackson. “As always, we will from a reasonable, adult perspective evaluate this proposal that he’s put forth.
“But the inconsistencies as it relates to previous statements, previous announcements, previous positions is just incredibly troubling. And so we want to be respectful but be very diligent to evaluate the numbers.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead, also speaking shortly after Justice’s announcement, said lawmakers had wanted raises to be bigger if the state could find the means.
“We want to look at where the governor is coming up with the additional revenue,” Armstead said.
Armstead said the governor described meeting with his top revenue advisers and gaining confidence that the money would be there without additional tax increases.
“To the extent that is in fact the case, I think that’s encouraging news for us,” Armstead said. “We all want to look at this and see the details, but in my discussions with the governor he has assured me that his proposal will not result in any additional taxation measures.”
In a statement released Tuesday evening, Democratic members of the House of Delegates said they were glad Justice “found” the money for pay raises they believed was there to begin with.
“We call on Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Tim Armstead to immediately take action on legislation to ensure these pay raises happen without incurring any additional cost to the taxpayers by having a special session,” stated House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison.
“We must begin work tomorrow on finding a permanent fix to PEIA which is by far the number one concern of public employees and retirees.”
Lawmakers had earlier passed an average 2 percent pay raise for next year for teachers and school service personnel. Justice signed that bill, calling it a prudent approach.
And the Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board voted to freeze the plan for the next 17 months at Justice’s request.
Even so, thousands of teachers poured into the state Capitol over the past four days for a statewide walkout that made national news.
They said the raises were not enough to cover their increasing healthcare costs, and they wanted long-term fixes for both.
Justice attended town hall meetings in three West Virginia cities on Monday and described himself as “beat up.”
“I went home, and I thought a lot about it,” he said. “I said, ‘Well, I’m going to go back and dig and get into the numbers and call all the officials and everybody and get them together now and say ‘Tell me what would make you happy.'”
So that’s how Tuesday was spent.
“We need to get our teachers back in school,” Justice said.