In a testy exchange with striking educators, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice defended his role in attempting to resolve the teachers strike that has left all public schools closed for the past week.
“I’m trying. What else can I do?” Justice, speaking from the driver’s seat of a black SUV, told a crowd of teachers near the state Capitol. “I’m not king. I’m doing what all I can possibly do.”
The back-and-forth came days after Justice reached a tentative pay deal with union leaders that provides for a 5% pay raise the first year. The agreement was designed to end the strike and send teachers back into the classroom, but the bill has stalled in the state Legislature.
Sen. Mitch Carmichael, president of the Senate, said he was concerned the state did not have the money to pay for the proposed raise.
“We cannot continue to spend money we do not have or write checks we cannot cash,” he said.
Without an agreement, all West Virginia public schools remained closed Thursday as the strike over pay and benefits continued. Justice said he was meeting with state Senate leaders to persuade them to pass the bill and end the strike.
The state Senate voted Thursday to refer the bill to the Finance Committee, which did not take up the bill in its morning session. The committee announced Thursday afternoon it would not meet again for the day, effectively shelving the bill for the rest of the day.
Public schools across the state will continue to be closed Friday. All 55 counties statewide were reporting closings Thursday night, according to the West Virginia Department of Education website.
‘See you Friday’
The proposed deal did not include a fix to the state health insurance plan, the Public Employees Insurance Agency, or PEIA, which employees say requires them to pay premiums that are too high. The status of PEIA was one of the major reasons for the strike in the first place, educators said.
“The No. 1 thing was we needed a permanent fix to PEIA,” Lori Hausvater, a math and special education teacher at Lincoln High School in Shinnston, said. “It wasn’t about the money at all. It was about the insurance fix.”
The governor said the issue of funding insurance would be addressed by a task force created by the union deal.
“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 a letter to all state employees. “A cure won’t come in 30 minutes, but I can promise you this task force will begin its work immediately.”
Teachers and education personnel demanding a fix to their health insurance crowded in the state Capitol on Wednesday and sang, “We’re not gonna take it.”
They also chanted, “See you Thursday,” and “See you Friday,” outside Justice’s office, continuing the demonstrations that began last week.
The state’s insurance plan covers nearly 200,000 public employees in West Virginia, according to CNN affiliate WCHS in Charleston. The fund is listed as being in poor health, the station reported.
Educators say they face higher co-pays and out-of-pocket maximums for medical care while their pay remains low.
Roughly 277,000 students attend school in West Virginia.
Judith Boyce, a local union president in Braxton County, said she met with union members in her county and they voted overwhelmingly not to return to work Thursday.
“A lot of people are feeling distrust toward the governor’s word,” she said.
The strike has put 20,000 teachers and 13,000 school service employees on the picket lines.
CNN’s Dave Alsup, Darran Simon, Polo Sandoval and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.