West Virginia teachers cheer pay hike deal to end strike

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s striking teachers cheered, sang and wept joyfully Tuesday as lawmakers voted to give them a 5 percent raise, ending a nine-day walkout that closed schools across the state.

A huge crowd of teachers packing the Capitol jumped up and down, chanted “We love our kids!” and sang John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The settlement came after a crippling strike that had idled hundreds of thousands of students, forced parents to scramble for child care and cast a spotlight on government dysfunction in one of the poorest states in the nation.

State schools Superintendent Steve Paine said in a statement he was “pleased that our students, teachers and service personnel will return to school” Wednesday.

“We know that the end is in sight,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association. “We know that they’re going to be relieved to do what they love best, and that’s taking care of the kids and educating the kids of West Virginia.”

The West Virginia teachers, some of the lowest-paid in the country, had gone without a salary increase for four years. They appeared to have strong public backing throughout their walkout.

Schools in Hancock and Brooke counties were set to be open today.

Melanie Donofe, Hancock County president of the Hancock County Education Association, said the strike was a long time coming, shown by the fact all 55 of West Virginia’s counties were involved. She expressed her appreciation for the support shown to teachers by the community, as well as the school superintendents and other officials.

“We have had overwhelming support, not only from the people of our area and state, but of many other states in the U.S. and teachers in foreign countries,” Donofe said. “The national news media made a difference and the local media has helped also.”

Tuesday marked the ninth day of canceled classes for the school system’s 277,000 students and 35,000 employees.

Ron Ujcich, president of the Brooke County chapter of the AFT, said he and other school personnel on picket lines Tuesday were a little skeptical when they received news of the Senate’s decision, but were very happy when it was confirmed by AFT leaders in Charleston. Ujcich said the PEIA’s financial status still must be addressed, but he has faith in the task force, which will include representatives of the AFT and WVEA.

Ujcich noted the strike received national attention and support from many outside West Virginia but the school personnel are most appreciative of the local community’s support.

“We’re so happy to be going back where we want to be and that’s the classrooms,” he said. “None of us wanted to do this, but sometimes you’ve got to take a stand.”

Teachers walked off the job Feb. 22, balking at an initial bill signed by Gov. Jim Justice to bump up their pay 2 percent in the first year as they also complained about rising health insurance costs.

Justice responded with an offer to raise teacher pay 5 percent — a proposal the state House approved swiftly but that senators weren’t so eager to sign off on.