WV schools close again, and legislative deal remains elusive

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — All West Virginia schools closed again.

Senate Republicans on a conference committee to work out differences in a bill dealing with pay raises for teachers said they were working on a compromise but wouldn’t describe it.

And all of the other lawmakers on the conference committee said they’d give the process until 9 a.m. Tuesday, the hour of the next scheduled meeting, but after that they said it’s time to move.

That sums up Monday, the 55th day of West Virginia’s legislative session and the eighth straight day every public school in the state closed.

West Virginia’s teachers and service personnel have walked out of classrooms and into the Capitol to push for better pay and stable health insurance.

A task force has been set up to work on the health insurance issue. But the pay increase is stuck on a very small difference.

Gov. Jim Justice proposed an average 5 percent average increase for educators, saying he would raise the state’s revenue estimates by $58 million for the coming fiscal year. The House of Delegates has supported that plan, and teachers unions say 5 percent is the mark to get schools back open.

The Senate majority says it doesn’t trust Justice’s revenue boost. Republicans have been pushing for an average 4 percent increase for all state employees.

Because they can’t agree, the two houses set up a conference committee.

So far that’s not working either.

Senators Ryan Ferns and Craig Blair, both Republicans, continued Monday to express skepticism over the governors’ numbers, saying he adjusted them after tense town halls with teachers.

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

The monetary difference between the two plans was described during Monday’s conference committee as about $7 million.

In favor of the 5 percent are Delegates Paul 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.

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

Or a compromise could be hatched.

That’s what Ferns suggested was happening behind closed doors, in another room.

Bill Anderson

The other members of the conference committee were caught off guard. They said it’s time to move.

“I’m not aware of the conversations you may have had with the Speaker. At some point we have to reach consensus. The earlier we can meet tomorrow the better,” Anderson said.

He added, “I do not think the sentiment has changed among the vast majority in the caucus that we support the position in the bill we sent to the Senate.”

Paul Espinosa

Espinosa said he’s willing to listen to new opportunities for resolving the issue.

“I think to the extent that there’s dialogue we can only hope that’s a positive opportunity” he said.

But he alluded to the 98-1 vote to pass the bill reflecting 5 percent out of the House.

“It’s pretty clear based on the bill coming out of the House where the House believes is the best opportunity to resolve this situation,” Espinosa said.

Brent Boggs

Boggs chimed in to say his caucus wasn’t aware of any compromise details at that moment. But he, too, expressed urgency.

“I do not know what might be transpiring in negotiations behind the scenes, but I do know this needs to be resolved as quickly as possible,” he said.

“We really need to act in the morning. We’re really, literally, out of time.”

Robert Plymale

Plymale, representing Democrats in the Senate, likewise said the deadline is almost up to reach an agreement.

“I’m ready to move forward as well,” he said. “I won’t make a motion today but will be ready to do it at 9 o’clock in the morning.”

The leaders of West Virginia’s two teachers unions were upset that there was still no legislative resolution.

And they were frustrated by the reference to a new deal that had no further details.

Dale Lee

“To not even give them any insight on what this secret deal is supposed to be, it’s not fair to the 30,000-plus education employees across the state of West Virginia,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.

“Wouldn’t you think, in the guise of transparency, that they would bring us in and say ‘This is what we’re talking about?'”

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