Ranson, W.Va. • West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, R, on Tuesday announced a deal to give striking teachers a 5 percent raise, bringing to an end a nine-day work stoppage that had shuttered schools across the state.
Justice wrote on Twitter that he "stood rock solid" on a 5 percent raise for teachers in the state. He also announced that the same increase will be extended to all state workers after he and his staff made budget cuts to come up with the money. A press conference on the matter was expected Tuesday afternoon.
"All the focus should have always been on fairness and getting the kids back in school," he said in a tweet.
Teachers in this state walked off the job amid concerns over pay and benefits. As the work stoppage dragged on, more than 277,000 public school students were kept out of their classrooms, and families were left scrambling for child care. Educators and school staff flooded the state Capitol in Charleston, while others joined picket lines in their communities.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a major union, was in Charleston on Tuesday and described a sense of relief and joy.
"You're seeing it, frankly, on legislators' faces, on the governor's face, on members here, on parents," Weingarten said. "It is a sense of joy here, that West Virginia figured out a way to help its public schools, to help its public school educators, to help its public school employees, and it did it together."
West Virginia is one of the nation's poorest states, and its teachers are among the most poorly paid, ranking 48th in the United States in 2016, according to National Education Association data. The salary for beginning teachers in West Virginia is $32,435 a year, and the average teacher salary is $44,701, according to the state teachers union.
"I think that people are not used to workers winning living wage fights, and living wage battles," Weingarten said. "And battles for human dignity, and battles for their families. That's what this was."
Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, on Tuesday called the latest proposed deal to end the strike a "huge victory and symbol of respect for every teacher and school support staff member in the state."
"Thousands of educators and their supporters came to the state Capitol for the last week to ensure the public and the legislature understand how important their jobs are and that they have been underpaid and undervalued," she said in a statement. "The strike and its strong outcome should be seen as a shot across the bow to every lawmaker who may underestimate the support teachers have, the hard job they do and their willingness to stand up for what they deserve as they educate the next generation."
The statewide work stoppage that spread to schools in all of West Virginia's 55 counties began Feb. 22 and involved a roller coaster legislative process. An earlier pact had been expected to end the standoff. But that deal, which provided a 5 percent raise for those working in education, had to pass West Virginia's legislature, which wasn't as simple as it initially appeared. During the political turmoil, teachers remained off the job.
The governor has promised to create a task force to address concerns about health care — a major concern during the strike. That task force would include educators, Justice said in a letter to state employees last week.
"It is important that everyone understand that identifying all of the issues in our health-care program and finding a solution takes time," Justice said in the letter. "A cure won't come in 30 minutes, but I can promise you this task force will begin its work immediately."
Not long after the latest deal was announced Tuesday, Kym Randolph, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Education Association, another union, said she expected it to hold.
"I think everybody wants to be back to school," Randolph said. "Even the kids. They want to be back to school. I know our employees want to be back. And I think it's just a relief for everybody."