Politics & Government

1 in 5 Kentucky teachers could retire now. Will pension changes spark an exodus?

Twenty percent of Kentucky’s 42,020 public school teachers are eligible to retire, but for whatever professional or personal reasons, they reported for work this month when classes started.

Asked on Facebook Live late Monday about the possibility of an exodus of teachers sparked by possible sweeping state pension changes, including a proposal to raise the retirement age for teachers to 65, Gov. Matt Bevin said he is hearing a number of similar comments “threatening” thousands of classroom vacancies in the middle of the school year.

“Frankly, if a teacher thinks so little of their responsibility and their obligation to their students and the families that they’re responsible to that they would literally walk out on their classroom, in their own self-interest, that’s an unfortunate decision I would certainly hope that a teacher would not make,” said Bevin, a Republican.

“But I will say this,” he said. “If you happen to be a teacher who would walk out on your classroom, in order to serve what’s in your own personal best interest at the expense of your children, you probably should retire. I’m being completely serious. If that’s truly where you are at this stage in your career, I wouldn’t suggest that being in a classroom is probably the best use of your time.

“And yet I know for a fact that almost all of you teachers that are watching this don’t think that way.”

Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover, a Republican whose wife is a first-grade teacher, distanced himself from Bevin’s remarks Tuesday.

“I was disappointed in what the governor said about those that would consider (retirement). He’ll have to answer for that,” Hoover, R-Jamestown, told reporters at the Capitol, where lawmakers gathered behind closed doors to discuss what they might do about state pensions during a possible special legislative session later this year. “We all need to turn down the rhetoric and recognize (that) we’ve got a serious problem and we need to come together as Kentuckians and try to solve this problem.”

The president of the Fayette County Education Association, kindergarten teacher Jessica Hiler, said Tuesday that Bevin doesn’t comprehend the dilemma teachers soon could face.

They love their students, Hiler said, but many teachers planned to retire in their mid-50s. If the legislature suddenly raises the retirement age to 65, as pension consultants hired by Bevin proposed Monday, “then you’re basically moving the goalposts on us in the middle of the game,” she said. Under that scenario, teachers would have to decide quickly whether to retire now or work a decade longer than expected.

“I couldn’t predict what will happen, because I haven’t spoken to enough people yet,” she said. “I can tell you that I always think that our teachers will do what’s best for our students.”

School teachers in Kentucky are eligible to retire on lifetime pensions after 27 years on the job. A teacher who earned $64,380 at the end of her career might collect a $37,368 pension, according to data provided by the Teacher Retirement System of Kentucky. Hiler said, though, that many teachers work several years beyond their earliest possible retirement date, often into their mid-50s, because they enjoy their jobs.

That said, teaching can involve emotionally draining, physically exhausting 14-hour days and six-day weeks, so someone who flinches at the thought of another decade should not be cast as a villain, she said.

“It feels like we’ve gotten to the point where we’re being vilified for wanting to make it to retirement.”

“I would invite Gov. Bevin to spend some time in one of our public schools so he could see what it’s like to be a teacher. We all have made sacrifices every single day for our students. Teachers provide a lot, not just in time — this is not an 8-to-3 job, despite what people say — but also in money from our own pockets for classroom supplies and sometimes for food and clothing for our students when we can see that they need it,” she said.

Bevin’s pension consultants also recommended Monday that future school teachers and many university employees, who also are 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.

Current teachers — who are not eligible for Social Security — would continue in their current pension plan, with 65 as the new retirement age. The consultants recommended stopping teachers from using unused sick days to boost their pensions and suspending all cost-of-living adjustments for retired teachers until the pension plan is 90 percent funded. The plan is now 54.6 percent funded.

Bevin has publicly complained about teachers and state workers using sick days to increase their retirement benefits, referring to it as “gaming the system.” Speaking to reporters Tuesday, however, Hoover said his wife doesn’t know how many sick days she has accumulated and, until now, she didn’t realize they would count toward her pension.

“Honestly, I was disappointed in the governor’s remarks with regard to sick days,” Hoover said. “I think it’s telling that someone like my spouse, who is a 25-year teacher, didn’t know how many sick days she had because she gets up and goes to work. So I understand the frustration of teachers with regard to that comment. I’m disappointed in it. I hope the governor misspoke, but we do have to look at how we handle sick days moving forward, and that has to be a topic of discussion.”

Any proposals made by Bevin must be approved by the legislature.

Herald-Leader staff writer Daniel Desrochers contributed to this report.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader