Unions call end to strike; teachers returning to classrooms Thursday

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The statewide education strike will end after two days following the House of Delegates opting not to act Wednesday on the omnibus legislation that angered teachers unions.

Leaders of the state’s three leading education unions and legislators announced the decision to end the strike after the House adjourned for the day.

The House moved Tuesday to indefinitely postpone action on the omnibus education bill, which included a 5-percent pay raise in addition to provisions establishing education savings accounts and charter schools.

“This is about the members who made the most difficult decision that you can make, and that’s to step out of the classroom. But they did it for their kids,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association. “They said they weren’t interested in the pay raise if it was going to hurt their kids.”

Members of the association, the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association voted earlier this month to authorize work action as a response to Senate Bill 451.

While the House changed the legislation by removing education savings accounts and limiting the number of charter schools to two institutions, the call for the strike came Monday after the Senate passed an amended version of the legislation with provisions adding 1,000 education savings accounts and expanding the number of charter schools to a seven-institution maximum.

All but one county school system — Putnam County Schools — closed Tuesday because of the strike. Putnam County Schools was again open Wednesday as other schools remained closed due to the strike or winter weather. Staff and student attendance were low on both days.

“We believe schools will be open in all 55 counties tomorrow with one exception: There may be snow or rain or floods,” Lee joked. “We can’t control what the weather does.”

Fred Albert, president of AFT-West Virginia, said the relationship between educators and Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, lacks trust stemming from the education omnibus; some teachers have called the legislation retaliation for last year’s education work stoppage which closed schools for nine class days.

“The things that he has pulled has built this great mistrust among our teachers and service personnel throughout the state, and we’re very sorry about that,” he said.

Albert continued, saying members have been vocal about legislative actions and effectively responding to the now-dead bill.

“Today, we found out that overwhelming they wanted Senate Bill 451 to be killed, to be dead. And that is what has happened,” he said. “Their voices have been heard. Senate Bill 451 is now dead, it’s gone and we will not be resurrecting that bill again this year.”

The legislation could have been brought back to the floor Wednesday under House rules, yet no lawmaker made such action.

The House Finance Committee passed Wednesday a bill on pay raises for public employees, including teachers and school service personnel. A fiscal note puts the cost of the legislation for the state Department of Education at more than $67.7 million.

The bill also includes raises for West Virginia State Police employees.

The full House read the bill for the first time during a Wednesday evening session.

While most schools will be open barring weather, the February authorization vote allows union leaders to declare a strike later if there is legislation they see as harmful.

“We reserve the right if, to put it bluntly, Mitch goes crazy, to say we’re coming back,” Lee added.

Joe White, president of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, added a majority of local leaders are going returning to school “with reservation.”

“Ladies and gentlemen and my friends, let’s fire up the stoves and get ’em rolling. Our babies are waiting,” he said.

Gov. Jim Justice has backed legislation that only address pay raises. Lee also mentioned Justice’s promise of $150 million for stabilizing the state employee’s health insurance program, which lawmakers will also be considering.

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