West Virginia teacher strike headed for a 9th day

West Virginia Teachers StrikeThe Associated Press
Elizabeth Ferguson Hollifield, a teacher from Princeton W.Va., holds a sign as she walks to a teacher rally Monday, March 5, 2018, at the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Hundreds of teachers from 55 counties are on strike for pay raises and better health benefits. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

Striking teachers in West Virginia delivered yet another message to lawmakers Monday by packing the state Capitol to capacity, the eighth school day of the walkout.

The show of support by thousands didn't immediately sway the lawmakers, who failed to agree on a 5 percent pay raise that would end the strike, forcing districts to cancel school again Tuesday. The governor, union leaders and the House of Delegates agreed to the pay raise for the teachers, among the lowest paid in the nation, but the Senate offered only a 4 percent increase.

However, a conference committee of House and Senate members met twice Monday, adjourning until Tuesday morning after Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns said his chamber's leadership was offering "a compromise position." He noted it was only preliminary. Details were not publicly disclosed.

Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and Ferns, R-Ohio, said earlier that they remained skeptical that revised, higher revenue figures from Gov. Jim Justice to support the higher pay raises were legitimate. 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 to close again Tuesday, the ninth day of canceled classes.

The Capitol was closed Monday after 5,000 people entered, 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 the education system's 277,000 students and 35,000 employees, forcing working parents to scramble for child care. And children who rely on meals at school were at risk of going hungry.

In a state with a 17.9 percent poverty rate, teachers, bus drivers and other volunteers are collecting food for students who rely on free breakfasts and lunches. Teachers shared 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, as a stay-at-home mom from Cross Lanes, said her biggest challenge has been 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 shuttered classrooms Feb. 22. Since then, angry teachers have gone to the Capitol to press legislators to raise their pay after four years without an increase.

The walkout began after Justice signed a 2 percent pay raise for next year. After an initial round of protests, the House of Delegates later approved a 5 percent increase.

Then on Saturday, the state Senate approved a 4 percent raise, prompting angry union leaders to vow to stay out indefinitely. The House wouldn't agree to the Senate's move, sending the bill to the conference committee.

To make ends meet for themselves, many of these teachers have side jobs.

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. "But at the end of the day, now we're forced to be able to figure out how to care for our own families."