CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia legislators plan to meet Tuesday in search of a compromise that could end the strike by West Virginia teachers, now entering its ninth day.
A show of support by thousands of teachers and supporters on Monday didn’t immediately sway the lawmakers, who failed to agree on a 5 percent pay raise, forcing another day of cancelled classes for the school system’s 277,000 students and 35,000 employees.
The governor, union leaders and the House of Delegates agreed to the 5 percent pay raise for the teachers, who are among the lowest paid in the nation and haven’t had a salary increase in four years. The Senate offered only 4 percent.
A conference committee of six House and Senate members met for the second time Monday evening, where Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns said his chamber’s leadership was offering “a compromise position.” He noted it was only preliminary. Details were not disclosed publicly. The committee planned to meet again Tuesday morning.
“Our position’s not as much about the amount of the pay raise but just how it’s paid for,” Ferns said.
Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and Ferns, R-Ohio, expressed skepticism about the legitimacy of revised, higher revenue figures Gov. Jim Justice cited to support the higher pay raises. Blair suggested that schools reopen while the Legislature tries to work on the bills, prompting groans from the audience.
Ghent Elementary second-grade teacher April Smith attended the meeting and was disheartened.
“I don’t see them coming to an agreement, especially to satisfy everyone,” she said.
The committee’s initial inaction prompted schools statewide announce a ninth day of canceled classes on Tuesday.
The Capitol was briefly closed as well on Monday after 5,000 people entered the building, posing security concerns. It was reopened an hour later, and teachers vented their frustration over the lack of progress. Their strike, in one of the poorest states in the country, has disrupted lives across the state, forcing working parents to scramble for child care and putting children who rely on meals at school at risk of going hungry.
With 17.9 percent of West Virginians living below official poverty levels, teachers, bus drivers and other volunteers are collecting food for students who rely on free breakfasts and lunches. Teachers also are sharing stories of donating their time, money or food. At least two GoFundMe pages have been launched in support of the walkout.
“It does make you feel good because we are helping them,” said Ann Osburn, a special education teacher at Buckhannon Academy. “I think we’re reaching as many as we can.”
Rachel Stringer, a a stay-at-home mom from Cross Lanes, said her biggest challenge is making sure her children don’t forget what they’ve learned this school year. Despite the long layoff, Stringer supports the teachers.
“They deserve to be paid,” she said. “They deserve to be able to have insurance.”
Many teachers said they’d rather be in the classroom, but believe they’ve come too far to back down.
“We feel like we’re under attack constantly,” said Cody Thompson, a social studies and civics teacher at Elkins High School. “Eventually, whenever you’re pushed into a corner, you’ve got to push back.”
The teacher walkout over pay and benefits began on Feb. 22 after the governor signed a 2 percent pay raise for next year. He reconsidered after an initial round of protests, and the House of Delegates later approved a 5 percent increase. The Senate’s insistence on a 4 percent raise Saturday prompted the union to extend the strike.
Many teachers already have side jobs to make ends meet. Kristie Skidmore, an elementary school reading specialist, has a clothing shop at her home.
“You’re looking at people here who every day care about other people, other families. People’s kids,” Skidmore said. “Now we’re forced to be able to figure out how to care for our own families.”