State superintendent: Walkout is ‘unlawful’

FRANKLIN — Despite state legislative approval Tuesday evening of a multi-year pay raise for teachers, school service employees and State Police, the West Virginia Education Association has declared a work stoppage for Thursday and Friday.

The House of Delegates approved an amended Senate bill adopting the multi-year pay raise and sent it to Gov. Jim Justice for signature.

The bill provides more than $119 million in pay increases over the next three years, according to Paul Espinosa (R-Jefferson County), member of the House Education Committee. All employees covered by the bill would receive an average 2 percent pay raise effective July 1, with state police and service personnel receiving an additional 1 percent the following year and teachers receiving 1 percent raises for the following two years.

“This represents a substantial commitment to our teachers and public employees for the coming year. This is the largest pay raise package … seen in decades and is being done at a time when our budget picture still remains relatively tight,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.

Also, the Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board Wednesday approved the recommended freeze to all employee insurance plans, preventing any increases to deductibles or co-pays of out-of-pocket expenses for the coming year.

“This is a strong package that represents our commitment to making our teachers and public employees our top priority,” Armstead said.

Thomas Bane, regional staff representative for the WVEA, said the new legislation was “an insult to school employees.”

The WVEA wanted larger pay increases for all school employees, Bane said. Other requests were for PEIA to be fully funded, elimination of the legislation that funds charter schools, elimination of the education saving accounts giving home educators an unrefundable $6,000 that comes from the school budget, elimination of the bill that eliminates the seniority rights, and elimination of a House pay roll protection bill.

Work stoppages by public employees are not lawful in West Virginia, said West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Dr. Steven Paine.

As a lifelong educator he recognizes and supports the work of teachers and service personnel. “Only as we are able to provide competitive benefits — inclusive of adequate pay and affordable healthcare — are we able to recruit and retain the best talent,” he said in statement Wednesday.

Fully recognizing that teachers and service personnel deserve more, “I personally know the West Virginia Board of Education, our governor and our state Legislators agree,” but the economic realities of our state may not allow everything teachers deserve to take place immediately, he added.

Paine regretted that circumstances have led to the announcement of a statewide work stoppage.

“I am hopeful that action will be taken to prevent any disruption to students and classrooms. … I encourage our educators to advocate for the benefits they deserve, but to seek courses of action that have the least possible disruption for our students,” he said.

Having met this week with all county superintendents, Paine said they will all work to minimize student disruption and will communicate frequently with parents. Each county will make a decision based on its unique needs, keeping the safety and well-being of students as a top priority.

As the situation progresses he will continue to work with all parties involved to reach the best solution possible, Paine added.

Pendleton County schools will be closed Thursday and Friday, according to County Superintendent Charles Hedrick.