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West Virginia threatens legal action against striking teachers, but they aren’t backing down

All public schools in the state are closed again on Monday.

West Virginia teachers, school staff, and allies gather at the capitol grounds for a candlelight vigil. (CREDIT: AFT-West Virginia/Facebook)
West Virginia teachers, school staff, and allies gather at the capitol grounds for a candlelight vigil. (CREDIT: AFT-West Virginia/Facebook)

West Virginia teachers continued their strike for a third day on Monday. Teachers and school staff first began their walkout on Thursday to demand better salaries and health insurance, resulting in public school closures across the state.

Teachers said rising health care premiums coupled with low salaries make it difficult for them to afford school supplies and sometimes require them to take on second jobs. According to the National Education Association, the average salary for a West Virginia teacher was $45,622 in 2016, which ranked 48th among all states. Although the governor signed legislation last week that would give teachers a 2 percent pay raise beginning in July and 1 percent over the next two years, teachers say it’s not good enough.

State education officials are now considering whether or not to take legal action. State School Superintendent Steve Paine said in a statement on Saturday that officials will decide whether to put a discussion of legal action on the State Board of Education meeting agenda.

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Teachers were already aware that the walkout is illegal. Last week, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said, “State law and court rulings give specific parties avenues to remedy such illegal conduct, including the option to seek an injunction to end an unlawful strike.” When the last statewide teacher strike happened nearly 30 years ago, which was also focused on better salaries, the attorney general made similar remarks, but teachers never experienced legal consequences.

Gov. Jim Justice (R) said he won’t rule out the possibility of seeking a court injunction to force teachers to return to work. “Jim Justice gets it that [teachers] are unappreciated and underpaid,” Justice told reporters on Friday, referring to himself in the third-person. “But Jim Justice has got to do his job too, and I will. Don’t anybody doubt my resolve. I will do my job, and this is that prudent thing to do — what we’re doing right now.”

Justice went to a town hall meeting with striking teachers on Monday. Scott Heins, a journalist who attended the meeting, tweeted that the governor, who was nearly on hour late to the meeting, responded to a woman who shouted that he put as much pressure on legislators as he does teachers, “I can be the town redneck too.”

At one point during the town hall meeting, when Justice began to suggest that teachers’ ideas were impractical and may not pass the legislature, teachers began to walk out.

On Monday morning, Justice tweeted about the Public Employees Insurance Agency, “You don’t have a chance in the plant of fixing [PEIA] in the next ten days.”

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Last week, the PEIA Finance Board said it would freeze proposed changes to the insurance plan until July 2019 but teachers say that’s just a Band-Aid fix to a long-term problem.

Teachers on strike also tried to go to the West Virginia Capitol on Monday.

“You know, as a professional degreed teacher, working two jobs, I qualify for [Women, Infants and Children food and nutrition service] and food stamps,” Jacob Fertig, an art teacher at Riverside High School in Belle, in Kanawha County, told CNN. “There were a lot of times where we got to choose between groceries and health coverage for my family.”

According to West Virginia Metro News, about 4,000 teachers and school staff were inside the Capitol on Friday and teachers held a candlelight vigil on the Capitol steps on Sunday night, where they sang “Country Roads” by John Denver.