By Ryan Quinn

The statewide public school employees strike that began last Thursday will continue today, despite state-level union leaders' call for workers to return to schools today following a new proposal from the governor.

As of 10:40 p.m. Wednesday, all 55 counties had announced their public schools would be closed today.

Tuesday's post-6 p.m. proposal by Gov. Jim Justice and union leaders to end the strike today went over like a lead balloon with many school employees, and it was clear by Wednesday evening that many workers weren't in favor of returning to work yet.

About 40 counties announced closures from 7:30-10:40 p.m. Wednesday, with others announcing the closures earlier in the day.

"We believe the best course of action at this time is to return to school tomorrow, however we realize that not everyone will," said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association union, in a joint news conference with other union leaders around 6 p.m. He said the unions will support their members, regardless.

In a pivot, the union leaders had asked state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine on Wednesday to consider helping to keep schools closed Thursday and Friday, but Paine issued an emailed statement around 4:15 p.m. saying, "My expectation is that all public schools in West Virginia will be in session on Thursday."

It wasn't clear whether all school systems with announced closures were due to planned continued strikes, although the official announcements from Cabell, Kanawha, Lincoln and others said as much. Boone union presidents said employees who came to the state Capitol on Wednesday had taken some sort of vote outside the nearby Culture Center to continue striking.

"After speaking with union leadership this evening, whose membership has reported to them, we do not feel that we will have enough professional and service staff available to keep our system running tomorrow," Kanawha schools Communications Director Briana Warner wrote in a 7:15 p.m. email.

"When we decide whether or not to open, please know that we will use all relevant information to make a decision that's best for our schools and our system," Warner said. "That doesn't just include planning for teachers in the classroom, but also bus drivers, cooks, custodians and other essential personnel. We must have coverage in all areas in order to open and keep our children safe."

Brandon Wolford, president of Mingo County's branch of the WVEA, said all Mingo employees were getting ready to officially vote on whether to continue striking Thursday, "and I relayed the message to our superintendent that I have had very few, maybe two or three, who said they wanted to go back to work, the rest are absolutely in opposition, 100 percent."

Wolford said that's why Mingo Superintendent Don Spence called off schools, saying Spence didn't want division and "we are very grateful for our superintendent for promoting unity, for standing with his employees and also following the law."

"PEIA is the reason this started, and all they've given us so far is 5 percent pay raise that hasn't been passed, so in our book nothing has been fixed, it's not in stone," Wolford said. The pay raise bill did end up moving substantially through the Legislature later Wednesday.

Legal precedent suggests that school workers who strike in a county where school hasn't officially been canceled may face consequences.

Continuing chants of "A freeze is not a fix!" from previous strike days -- alongside new chants of "We got sold out!" -- crowds of teachers and other public school workers returned to the state Capitol Wednesday, saying they were not satisfied with Tuesday's proposal.

Thousands of people, many of them donning black instead of or in addition to the red shirts they wore on past strike days, flooded the Statehouse again, after Tuesday evening's announcement of the proposal to give teachers and school service personnel a 5 percent raise and other state employees a 3 percent hike, instead of previously approved 2 percent raises for both groups. The raises would start July 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year.

Tuesday's announcement didn't include much in the way of immediate plans to provide more long-term funding for Public Employees Insurance Agency health coverage.

Justice, a Republican, and Republican legislative leaders have pushed a plan and legislation to freeze current PEIA benefits and costs through the middle of 2019, delaying previously approved benefit cuts and premium increases that had caused an uproar. But employees have called for a longer-term guarantee.

After laying out the proposal on Tuesday evening, Justice and union leaders asked school employees to return to work Thursday.

West Virginia Education Association Executive Director David Haney said Wednesday that the "biggest thing is [Senate President] Mitch Carmichael's statement has inflamed a lot of people and we need to see some concrete things about the task force and bills." He said he didn't remember Carmichael's statement exactly, but said generally his statements "haven't been helpful," and said it was "something of the nature that it's frivolous."

On Tuesday, Carmichael told MetroNews reporter Jeff Jenkins, "It would be completely frivolous and ridiculous to embrace this proposal this far down the [legislative] session."

At the roughly 6 p.m. Wednesday news conference, the union leaders touted accomplishments so far, including Justice's executive order, released in a news release about an hour before the news conference, establishing the task force to find long-term funding solutions for PEIA.

The executive order says union representatives and other public employees will be included on the task force, and union leaders said it would begin meeting on or before March 15.

Lee also said "we have assurances that pieces of legislation that we oppose" including those downplaying the role of employee seniority, legalizing taxpayer-funded private school vouchers and complicating the process of payroll deductions to pay union dues "will not move throughout the remainder of the [legislative] session."

About 300 people filled the sanctuary for a meeting at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church near the Capitol Wednesday afternoon, with about 100 listening to the discussion with union leaders in other rooms of the church.

"I feel like last night in front of the national television we said we'll settle, and I don't want to settle," said Matt Jones, a teacher at Stonewall Jackson Middle. Audience members expressed frustration that they weren't contacted ahead of time about Tuesday's proposal.

Huntington Middle School teacher Adam Culver's general view of Tuesday's proposal was clear from the moment he joined, around 9:25 a.m., the line of about 100 people stretching out of the West Wing public entrance to the Capitol.

Garbed in black and wearing a hat shaped like the end of a banana, Culver held aloft one sign reading "Buuulllll" and one with the usual word for excrement that follows. He said the reverse side of the "Buuulllll" sign read "This isn't what I left my classroom for." Culver said he had worn a poorly fitting banana suit on previous days that he borrowed from a seventh grader. But he said "Now, the banana's turned black."

"All along, what we have said our No. 1 issue was a fix for PEIA, to give funding to help out not just teachers but all state employees, and they gave us a deal where teachers get a higher raise than anybody else and there's no solution to PEIA," Culver said. "I don't know why it's going to take a task force to just say there has to be more funding. You can't just fudge numbers and decide that there's a new revenue, there has to be an actual revenue source."

Justice said the state could pay for the higher proposed pay raises through upping revenue estimates for next fiscal year by $58 million, based on more expected revenue from, among other things, projected benefits from the tax changes passed by Republicans at the federal level.

Culver said "we've felt very strongly the whole time that the [natural] gas severance tax would be that revenue source" for PEIA, and he suggested a less politically likely solution could be further legalizing and taxing marijuana. He said PEIA needs a dedicated, continuing revenue stream, to keep benefits and costs as they currently exist.

"The House and Senate feel like they can starve us out, and we feel like our union leadership caved to that," he said. Culver said he's a member of Cabell's branch of the West Virginia Education Association, but he wasn't asked or told about the agreement before it was announced.

"We just hope that today our union leadership can give us more details and explain a little bit more about how we intend to hold their feet to the fire and make them keep their promises," Culver said. He said he wouldn't count out the possibility of Cabell or other counties continuing the strike.

(c)2018 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)