CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — It's back to school in West Virginia. Teachers across this poor Appalachian mountain state are reopening classrooms Wednesday, jubilant after their governor signed a 5 percent pay raise ending their nine-day walkout.
Teachers expressed relief and exhilaration by breaking out into song Tuesday after legislators approved the pay raise bill, which Gov. Jim Justice swiftly signed.
Now the state's 35,000 public school employees can get back to work — and 277,000 students back to their books.
"I'm so thrilled that it's over, and that I get to go back to my special ed kids, back to our regular routine, and that we're going to get some great work done the rest of the school year," said Melinda Monks, a special education teacher at Bridgeview Elementary in South Charleston.
Expressions of delight poured from thousands of teachers who packed the Capitol after Tuesday's settlement. They jumped up and down, chanted "We love our kids!" and sang John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." The deal ended a paralyzing strike that shut students out of classrooms statewide, forced parents to scramble for child care and cast a national spotlight on government dysfunction in West Virginia.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, formally declared the "work action was over" Tuesday evening after a consultation among local organizers. That group is the largest teacher organization in West Virginia and Lee said all 55 West Virginia counties had stood together in solidarity.
"Without them, today's agreement would not have happened," Lee's statement said.
The West Virginia teachers, some of the lowest-paid in the country, had gone without a salary increase for four years. They appeared to have strong public support throughout their walkout.
"We overcame. We overcame!" teacher Danielle Harris exclaimed, calling it a victory for students as well.
Teachers walked off the job Feb. 22, balking at an initial bill Justice signed that would have bumped up pay 2 percent in the first year as they also complained about rising health insurance costs.
Justice responded last week with an offer to raise teacher pay 5 percent — a proposal the state House approved swiftly but that senators weren't so eager to sign off on. Instead the Senate countered with an offer of 4 percent on Saturday.
Leaders of all three unions representing the state's teachers held firm, announcing that the walkout would continue, and the lawmakers gave in. The vote for 5 percent raises for teachers, school service personnel and state troopers in the House of Delegates was 99-0. The Senate followed, voting 34-0.
Jennifer Brown, a reading specialist at Sissonville Elementary School, showed up two hours early to see Justice sign the bill "and know that it's real."
Flanked by education leaders, the governor called it a "new day for education in West Virginia," and said there's "no more looking back!"
"We really have to move away from the idea that education is some necessary evil that's just got to be funded," he said, and look at "our children and our teachers and education process as an investment ... That's all there is to it."
Missed school days will be made up, either at the end of the school year or by shortening spring break, depending on decisions by individual counties. Justice said that would not mean families would go without their summer vacations, however.
Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair said lawmakers will seek to cut state spending by $20 million to pay for the raises, taking funds from general government services and Medicaid. Other state workers who also would get 5 percent raises under the deal will have to wait for a budget bill to pass.
Justice said additional budget cuts by his staff will fund the raises, but he insisted in response to a question at the news conference that there would be no damaging cuts to Medicaid or programs that help the poor.
Some students also were eager to return to school after the long layoff.
"I felt like my brain was rotting," said middle school student Emma Patterson. "And I'm just like excited to see a book again."
Associated Press writers Robert Ray in Charleston and Michael Virtanen in Morgantown, West Virginia, contributed to this report.