Governor: West Virginia teacher strike over after agreement reached

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announces an agreement that he said will end the education walkout. (WCHS/WVAH)

Gov. Jim Justice said the education strike in West Virginia is over.

At a news conference Tuesday, the governor said there will be a cooling off period Wednesday, and all employees will go back to work in the state’s schools Thursday.

Under the agreement that was reached, the governor said all state personnel will receive an across-the-board 3 percent raise in the first year, and all education-related personnel, including teachers and school service personnel, will get a 5 percent raise in the first year.

Justice said he is optimistic that the House of Delegates and Senate will approve the pay raises.

There will be a task force that will be formed to look at a long-term fix for health insurance for public employees, he said.

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said school employees across the state will be heading back to work.

“We are calling for our teachers and school personnel to go back to work,” Lee said. “We are taking this deal in good faith.”

During the news conference, the governor said he earlier hesitated on granting a larger pay raise because he had been looking at what the “prudent” thing would be to do. He said he decided he may not have been looking at the situation correctly and that education was an investment.

“Nobody loves education more than me,” Justice said. “Nobody loves teachers more than me.”

The governor cited things he believes he has done for education, such as getting rid of the A through F grading system for schools and freezing premiums and health insurance benefits for public employees until a long-term fix for PEIA could be found.

Schools were shut down in 55 counties for four days during the dispute over pay, health insurance and other educational issues.

Thousands of school employees flocked to the Capitol for rallies, including a huge one Monday that featured union speakers such as United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts.

On Monday, House Speaker Tim Armstead said he and Senate President Mitch Carmichael participated in some negotiations with union representatives.

During the course of the strike, Justice said several times that the state couldn't afford any larger pay raises than those approved by the Legislature that he signed into law. Those raises would have provided a 2 percent raise for teachers in the first year and 1 percent raises in each of the next two years. School employees would have received a 2 percent raise in the first year and 1 percent in the next year.

One of the main sticking points has been health insurance. Employees want a long-time fix that would fund PEIA. Benefits and premium increases were frozen – at Justice's request - for 16 months by the PEIA finance board. Union representatives said, however, that was not a permanent fix.

Justice said on Monday that he would appoint a task force to address issues for PEIA. He also said he wanted a legislative session to explore the possibility for a severance tax on natural gas that could help fund PEIA. Armstead said following that, however, the Legislature has shown no support for a broad, “omnibus” bill on natural gas.

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