Back to school: West Virginia teachers return to classroom

Posted at 1:46 PM, Mar 07, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-07 13:46:02-05

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia teachers returned to work as schools reopened Wednesday after winning a sizeable pay increase through a massive mobilization that continued without a hitch as teachers stood their ground when lawmakers didn’t give them what they wanted.

A nine-day statewide strike was declared over Tuesday after the Legislature passed and the governor signed a 5 percent pay raise to end what’s believed to be the longest strike in state history. The last major strike, in 1990, lasted eight days.

The paralyzing walkout shut 277,000 students out of classrooms, forced their parents to scramble for child care and cast a national spotlight on government dysfunction in West Virginia.

These 35,000 public school employees, some of the lowest-paid in the nation, had gone four years without a salary increase.

Embracing the hashtag “55strong” in a nod to the number of counties in the state, teachers and school service personnel arrived at the Capitol daily by the thousands, waiting in long lines in the cold and rain. They ignored the urging of their own union leaders and some politicians to return to school, remaining steadfast in their demands that caught a nation’s attention.

From outside the state, GoFundMe campaigns bought pizza for striking teachers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for teachers’ immediate needs such as lost pay and child care.

A Facebook page established by teachers that became a central link for communications and organizing now has more than 24,000 subscribers. Anyone who wants to join now has to be invited in, said Ryan Frankenberry, state director of the West Virginia Working Families Party.

A former staffer of one of the two state teachers’ unions, Frankenberry said it was critical that through social media, the teachers — and nobody else — controlled the information they shared and acted on. There’s interest in whether what happened in West Virginia, from the outside considered overwhelmingly red, can work elsewhere, he said.

“It’s definitely the buzz of our national organization,” Frankenberry said.

Despite losing nine school days, the teachers had support from parents and students, even as they extended their walkout until a third attempt from lawmakers met their demands.

Now they’re back at work, and students are back to their books.

“I feel really good today that school has re-started and I think the teachers had every right to do the strike because they deserve more money,” said Stonewall Jackson Middle School student Braycen Foster.

Some parents had a more difficult time with the restart because the 13-day layoff helped them bond more with their kids.

“I want her in school. But when she’s off, it’s fine with me. I want to keep her as young as I can for as long as I can,” Brandie Barber said as her sixth-grader climbed out of their car and grabbed a backpack filled with softball bats.

Nannette Higginbotham had mixed feelings as she said goodbye to her daughter.

“I love having her home, but I’m glad they’re getting back to school and getting it over with,” she said.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has asked county superintendents to be flexible as they decide how to meet the requirement of having 180 days of school, saying students “have suffered enough.” He wants families to have time for summer vacation and doesn’t want summer feeding programs placed in jeopardy if classes go too far into June.

Some superintendents are mulling whether to cut short spring break, typically in late March, although families often have vacations already slotted during that time.

The relief and exhilaration teachers expressed in the Capitol Tuesday as legislators approved the pay raise and Justice swiftly signed it transferred to their classrooms Wednesday.

In a Stonewall Jackson hallway, students filed past a sign that read “Welcome back, let’s roll.”

Teacher Hannah Silverman said she was “pumped.”

“I was like a kid on the first day of school last night, I literally couldn’t sleep,” Silverman said. “So, I was really excited, this is my passion. I want to be here and I’ve been excited since we found out yesterday.”

Teachers walked out on Feb. 22, balking at an initial bill Justice signed that would have bumped up pay by just 2 percent in the first year, not enough to cover their rising health insurance costs.

Justice responded last week by offering 5 percent and the House approved it, but the Senate balked, countering Saturday with 4 percent. The unions held firm and the lawmakers finally gave in, voting unanimously in both houses for 5 percent raises for teachers, school service personnel and state troopers.

Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair said lawmakers will seek to cut state spending by $20 million to pay for the raises, taking funds from general government services and Medicaid. Other state workers also promised 5 percent raises will have to wait for a budget bill to pass.

After the long layoff, Stonewall Jackson student Angel Davis said she tried to persuade her sister that it’s good to be back in school.

“I was happy,” she said. “I said I want my education.”