Politics & Government

Kentucky teachers group calls for statewide school closure Monday as teachers protest

‘We’re at a crossroads here.’ KEA president gets emotional talking about pension bill.

Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler got emotional with reporters on Friday, March 30, 2018, as she talked about legislative action on a new pension bill and its impact on teachers.
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Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler got emotional with reporters on Friday, March 30, 2018, as she talked about legislative action on a new pension bill and its impact on teachers.

The Kentucky Education Association is calling on public school districts in Kentucky to shut down Monday so teachers and their supporters can rally in Frankfort for more education funding and against planned changes to their pension system.

“We will be here watching every move legislators make,” KEA President Stephanie Winkler said during a Friday afternoon news conference.

“I urge anyone who can get here that is a citizen of the commonwealth to be here on Monday and to show the government that they want them to act in a responsible manner and do what is right for the people,” she said.

The rally is to start at 9 a.m. Monday in front of the KEA building on Capital Avenue. A march will follow to the Capitol at about 10 a.m. Many school districts already are closed next week for spring break.

More than 20 school districts in Kentucky called off school Friday because so many teachers and school employees called in sick following the legislature’s approval of a pension overhaul bill late Thursday night.

Winkler said any lawmaker who voted for Senate Bill 151 “will need to start packing up their legislative office” following this year’s elections.

“We are at a crisis point in public education,” she said. “We don’t need to be attacked, we don’t need to be vilified, we need to be supported.”

Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler tears up as she answers a question about student involvement and being thanked by a fourth grader at a rally protesting pension plan changes at the KEA headquarters in Frankfort, Ky. on Friday, March 30, 2018. Christian Tyler Randolph

Asked if an ongoing work stoppage is an option for frustrated teachers, Winkler said every option is on the table. She noted that Kentucky law does not allow teachers to strike.

Concerning the teacher shortage across the state Friday, Winkler said she cannot control individual teachers. “I support their right to call in sick if they are ill, and they are sick,” she said.

Winkler said teachers are upset with “the blatant disrespect for the law and for democracy” that she said was shown Thursday as the legislature passed the pension bill.

Hundreds of angry teachers gathered in the Capitol Rotunda Friday outside Gov. Matt Bevin’s office to protest a surprise public pension bill that legislators rushed through Thursday.

The bill was introduced as a committee substitute to a bill that originally dealt with sewage regulations Thursday afternoon. By 10:30 p.m., the House and Senate had approved the bill and sent it to Gov. Matt Bevin, who is expected to sign it into law. The public never had a chance to look at the bill before it was given final approval.

Winkler said she was more upset with how lawmakers handled the process than the contents of the bill.

“No one, except key leadership in both chambers, was privy to the nearly 300-page bill that was secretly switched from a waste water bill to a pension reform bill,” she said.

In the final days of this year’s legislative session, Winkler said, teachers will be watching closely to make sure the next two-year budget is in the best interest of public education students and public employees.

House and Senate negotiators are trying to iron out differences between their chambers on how the state should spend about $22 million in state money over the next two years. A major issue before them is whether to raise more revenue for the state through increased taxes.

Winkler said she wants to see an increase in the basic funding formula for school districts and sufficient transportation funding.

Several hours before the KEA news conference, hundreds of angry teachers gathered in the Capitol Rotunda outside Gov. Matt Bevin’s office to protest the surprise public pension bill.

“We are terribly upset. Our government is mismanaged and ill-informed,” said Dee Anna Albright, a fifth-grade social studies teacher in Carter County, as her colleagues shouted “we’ve had enough.”

On Twitter, Bevin complimented legislators who voted for the measure. It would place teachers hired after Jan. 1, 2019, in a hybrid cash-balance retirement plan rather than a traditional pension. It deleted language in a pension bill discussed throughout most of the session that would reduce the annual 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustments for retired teachers.

Rep. Rocky Adkins asks teachers to continue rallying after House Republicans rushed through a pension bill.

The new pension bill also would increase the retirement age for future teachers and would not let current teachers count sick-leave days accumulated after Dec. 31, 2018, toward their retirement benefits.

Supporters of the bill say it is a compromise and is needed to deal with the public pension systems’ more than $40 billion unfunded liability.

The protesters in Frankfort Friday grew louder when several Democratic leaders walked into the Rotunda. They included Attorney General Andy Beshear, House Democratic Leader Rocky Adkins, Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, Rep. Dennis Keene, and Rep. Wilson Stone.

“Last night we saw government at its worst, but today we see democracy at its best,” Beshear said through a bullhorn to the roaring crowd.

The protesters shouted his first name several times after he said he will “sue over this bill.” Winkler later said her group would join Beshear in the lawsuit.

The House and Senate did not gavel in Friday. Monday will mark the 58th day of the 60-day session that must end by April 15.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198, @BGPolitics