Day six: School employees dissect developments in Charleston

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HARRISON COUNTY, W.Va (WDTV) - On what was supposed to be the first day back to school, teachers and service personnel took their positions on the picket lines again Thursday, as they pushed state senators in Charleston to pass a pay raise bill.

"We need people working for us in Charleston because we put them in office," said Lora Rohrbough, a special education teacher at Nutter Fort Intermediate School. "Our hope today is in the Senate."

Earlier this week, Governor Jim Justice announced that he and union leaders struck a deal on a five percent pay raise bill. As one of the conditions of the agreement, school employees were urged to return to work Thursday.

That deal fell apart Wednesday, when it became clear the bill couldn't pass both legislative chambers.

However, educators said they saw incremental progress.

By the time employees went to sleep Wednesday night, the House of Delegates had passed the pay raise bill in overwhelming fashion. Also Wednesday, Gov. Justice signed an executive order establishing a task force focused on fixing PEIA.

"With the executive order from the governor that stated [the task force] would be put in place--that's one step in the right direction," said Eric Brand, a teacher at Nutter Fort Primary.

However, Brand was doubtful that Thursday would be the last day of the strike.

"I think there's still a lot more to bargain for, which is why we're still out here," he said.

A few miles away, employees from Washington Irving Middle School said the creation of a task force on PEIA did not represent meaningful change.

"We don't want promises--'well, we'll look at it with a task force'--that's not something solid," Mike Robey said, emphatically. "Pass something for us. Pass it."

By late morning, things took a turn. Senate President Mitch Carmichael suggested that the projected revenue used to fund the pay raise bill should instead be diverted to shoring up PEIA.

"It is disappointing that we would not be getting the raise we all deserve," said Stacia Hoffman, the secretary of Marion County-American Federation of Teachers. "But if it's going to help us with PEIA, then it would be a good save there."

But by the afternoon, skepticism turned to disappointment, as it became clear that a bill would not pass the full Senate.

By Thursday evening, all 55 school districts had cancelled classes for Friday, while the pay raise bill sat in the Senate Finance Committee.

"We can't lose our seat at the table," said Rohrbough, when asked about the prospects of the strike entering a seventh day. "If we go back in, we've lost all our bargaining power."