CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A middle school student’s questioning at a town hall meeting prompted West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice to rethink his approach to teacher pay that eventually would lead to an agreement to end a statewide walkout.
Justice announced Tuesday night he is offering teachers and school service personnel a revised 5 percent pay raise in the first year, a more generous offer than a pay raise bill he signed less than a week ago. In exchange for the latest proposal, teachers who have been on strike since Feb. 22 would return to the classroom on Thursday.
The announcement at a news conference came after Justice emerged from a meeting with union leaders for teachers in all 55 counties.
“We need our kids back in school. We need our teachers back in school,” he said.
Teachers will remain out of class on Wednesday in part because some counties had already called off school, Justice said, referring to it as a “cooling off day.”
Justice had signed across-the-board teacher pay raises of $808 next year and $404 the following two years. But teachers had said the increases weren’t enough, especially as health care costs rise. The state’s average teacher pay ranks among the lowest in the nation.
Chief of Staff Mike Hall said the latest pay raise proposal is based on revised revenue estimates of $58 million. The pay increases would have to be approved by the Legislature. Hall said the governor is committed to calling a special session if necessary.
Justice said he was swayed during questioning at a town hall meeting Monday in Wheeling from Gideon Titus-Glover, a sixth-grade student at Triadelphia Middle School. The governor said he was explaining to the student what an investment was when the student asked him a question.
“He looked right back and me and said, ‘wouldn’t it be an investment to invest in smart teachers that would make me smart, and then I could in turn turn around and do smart, good things for our state?” the governor recalled.
“Well, he’s right,” Justice told the news conference. “To be perfectly honest, in a lot of ways I was looking at this maybe not correctly.
“I’ve said many, many times we ought to look at education as an economic driver. But maybe I was looking at it as what was the prudent thing to do and not necessarily looking at education as an investment. So I went home and I thought a lot about it.”
In explaining the revenue projections, Justice did not offer a specific source but said that an overhaul of U.S. tax laws passed by Congress last year “is going to have a profound impact” on state finances. He also cited economic activity that would come from upcoming road repairs and construction. Voters in an October referendum authorized the state to sell $1.6 billion in new construction bonds.
Justice said that under his proposal, all state workers would receive a 3 percent raise, with teachers and school service personnel getting an additional 2 percent in the first year.
The teachers are represented by the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia Education Association. Also taking part in the strike are members of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, which includes support staff.
“We are taking this deal in good faith at this point,” said WVEA President Dale Lee, although he warned that teachers could be called to strike again if progress is not made.
In addition, Justice said a task force will be formed to address health benefits for state workers, including teachers.
The Public Employees Insurance Agency, a state entity that administers health care programs for public workers, including teachers, had agreed to freeze health insurance premiums and rates for the next fiscal year for state workers.
The House of Delegates has passed separate legislation to transfer $29 million from the state’s rainy day fund to freeze those rates and to apply 20 percent of future general fund surpluses toward a separate fund aimed at stabilizing the employees’ insurance agency. Both bills are now pending in the state Senate.
Teachers have been worried the proposed solution is only temporary or worse, especially if the state surplus turns out to be minimal.
Virtanen reported from Morgantown, West Virginia.