Striking West Virginia teachers to return to class Thursday

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) Striking teachers in West Virginia will return to the classroom on Thursday, Gov. Jim Justice said in announcing he's offering teachers and school service personnel a revised 5 percent pay raise in the first year.

Justice made the announcement at a news conference Tuesday after emerging from a meeting with union leaders for teachers in all 55 counties. Teachers began their walkout last Thursday, their first statewide strike since 1990.

"We need our kids back in school. We need our teachers back in school," Justice said.

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 did not offer a specific revenue 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.

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.