West Virginia Leaders Reach Deal to End Teachers Strike

Vanessa Brown, a teacher from Cledenin W.Va., holds a sign with her hat as she waits to get into 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)

CHARLESTON, W. Va. (CN) – A 9-day teacher strike in West Virginia ended Tuesday, after the state Senate passed a bill giving teachers – and all other state employees – a 5 percent raise.

One of the main sticking points that led to the strike remains, to “fix” the Public Employees Insurance Agency by freezing health insurance premiums for teachers. But Governor Jim Justice assured the public that a task force will figure out how to gather the necessary funding.

“Really, you can think what you want,” Justice said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon at the State Cultural Center. “But I have always believed in education and I think it should be our centerpiece.”

Justice spoke about how becoming a basketball coach and meeting a local child helped change his mind during the strike.

“A coach sometimes, when he maybe isn’t thinking right about something, a good coach is always willing to step up to the plate and say, ‘Well, you know, I wasn’t thinking about that the right way.’ In other words, a good coach makes adjustments. But I really believe after I went out on the road with the whole team was that the whole focus was investment and a little kid, of all people, stepped up and reminded me of what I stood for, over and over and over.”

On Tuesday morning, state Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair said that there would be deep cuts, including at least $20 million to general service programs and Medicaid, to fund the pay raises. But Justice said during his press conference that there are “cash-ending balances from Medicaid that will absolutely backstop any cuts whatsoever to Medicaid in any way. We would not let our people who are on Medicaid suffer in any way.”

The mass of teachers gathered at the state Capitol when the bill passed the Senate 34-0 shouted and wept tears of joy before gathering hands and singing “Country Roads.”

Most of the strikers appeared to be jubilant and hopeful Tuesday, including teacher Patty Groves.

“I’m mostly excited about the salaries myself. I’m really upset that there are teachers that are not highly qualified in West Virginia and that prohibits us from offering our children the very best,” Groves said.

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