Wearing badges that said “A Pension is A Promise,” an estimated 200 members of the Fayette County Education Association asked state lawmakers to protect their pensions at a town hall-style meeting Thursday in Lexington.
Kentucky’s pension system is one of the worst-funded in the nation, with an unfunded liability of at least $38 billion. Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, has said he could call a special legislative session to deal with pension reform. FCEA members said Thursday night they are worried about recommendations in a report from Bevin’s pension consultants.
Both lawmakers and educators at the meeting at Frederick Douglass High School said there are many unanswered questions, and FCEA President Jessica Hiler said “there’s uncertainty at every turn and that’s what’s causing the angst.”
Hiler said there are similar town halls taking place all over Kentucky in an attempt to educate lawmakers, average citizens and public school employees who have questions about a complex issue.
“How do you expect us to attract and retain those (quality) teachers without the promise of a pension?” asked Crawford Middle School teacher Sara Green.
“We could probably go into the private sector and make a heck of a lot more money but we choose to do our work for the public, for the children of Kentucky,” said Kentucky Education Association president Stephanie Winkler. “In order for us to attract and retain the best and the brightest for our kids, we want to make sure that people remember ... a pension is a promise that should not be broken.”
Hiler said that public school employees are worried about a recommendation that employees enrolled in the Teacher Retirement System of Kentucky should be shifted away from a defined-benefits pension to a combination of Social Security and a 401(k)-style retirement plan. They are worried about another recommendation that teachers who are not eligible for Social Security would continue in their current pension plan, with 65 as the new retirement age, she said. And they are concerned about a recommendation that would prevent teachers from using unused sick days to boost their pensions and suspend cost-of-living adjustments for retired teachers until the pension plan is 90 percent funded. The plan is now 54.6 percent funded.
State Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, said after the meeting that lawmakers from both parties are “trying to do the right thing.”
“There’s a lot of uncertainty for teachers, they are very worried,” he said, “and when you don’t have anything concrete on the table, and you hear rumors, it just fuels itself.”
Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, D-Lexington, said there was nothing in the consultants’ recommendations that moves the state forward and helps retirees. “I just don’t like that report,” she said.
Lawmakers told the educators that they, too, are uncertain about what’s going to happen next. State Rep. George Brown, D-Lexington, and State Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, offered support as did the other lawmakers who appeared. State Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, said that if future teachers have a combination of Social Security and a 401(k) style retirement plan, it would be a “more expensive path” for the state.
“You do not deserve ... to be treated with disrespect and discounted at the most critical time ... when you are getting ready to retire,” said State Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington.