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West Virginia school employees are to hit the picket lines once again

Posted at 8:26 PM, Feb 18, 2019

Almost a year after West Virginia teachers and other school employees shut down schools across the state, demanding higher pay and better benefits, union officials announced Monday night they would go on strike again.

"We are left no other choice but as of tomorrow, we are calling a statewide strike of our teachers and our service personnel," said Fred Albert, president of the West Virginia American Federation of Teachers chapter. "We're left no other choice. Our voice has been shut out."

Last year's work stoppage lasted nine school days and resulted in almost daily rallies at the state capitol in Charleston. It ended after lawmakers brokered a deal that resulted in a 5% pay raise for teachers and school personnel and created a path toward better health insurance.

But this year, tensions have swirled for about a month in West Virginia since the state Senate brought forward a dramatic omnibus education bill that was poised to reform the education system across the state, according to Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association. While the bill did include the promised pay raise that resulted from last year's strike, it also included the introduction of charter schools to the state as well as the creation of education savings accounts that parents could tap into for homeschooling or private school tuition.

The bill has bounced around the state Legislature for the past few weeks, spurring worry among education advocates and teachers in West Virginia, and some changes were made in the House of Delegates to walk back some of the most sizable proposals. Pressures came to a head on Monday when the bill returned to the state Senate, which added an amendment that reinstated a lower number of charter schools and would allow for 1,000 education savings accounts. The bill in its amended state passed the Senate on Monday night.

Mitch Carmichael, president of the West Virginia Senate, tweeted about the bill on Monday evening , writing, "Comprehensive education reform that will improve student performance, provide parental choice and empower teachers is coming -- because parents, taxpayers, and job providers want our broken public education system fixed now."

CNN reached out to Carmichael for further comment.

Union leaders and other activists said Senate lawmakers who proposed the bill did not speak with anyone in the education community about the substantial changes proposed in the bill.

"We've worked closely as we can to try and get this thing to a resolution, but at this point, there doesn't seem to be that resolution," Lee said in a news conference on Monday night, adding that the unions will decide day to day whether to head back to school.

Nicole McCormick, a music teacher and president of the Mercer County Education Association, said the mood among educators is one of frustration and anger.

"Did you not get the gist last year?" she said, describing the feeling of educators toward lawmakers.

McCormick described the walkout as a last resort. She said her student choirs are training for competitions, and that she didn't want to miss "a single day" with her students at this critical time.

"It is incredibly important that I am there with them," she said. "And instead tomorrow, I'll be on the picket line.