Thousands of teachers returned to the state Capitol Friday to keep pressure on lawmakers to fund education and to protest a new pension law that is being challenged in court.
Unlike another massive protest on April 2 that attracted thousands of protesters to the Capitol, Friday’s event was limited by Kentucky State Police for security reasons to only 500 people inside the Capitol at one time.
But they proved just as vocal with chants like “Throw them out!” State lawmakers, who began meeting at 10 a.m. to consider vetoes by Gov. Matt Bevin, were well aware of their presence.
Outside, thousands of teachers gathered on the front steps of the Capitol. Many in the warm, spring sun threw blankets on the lush lawn to take in the rally.
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Gay Adelmann, a leader in Save Our Schools Kentucky which organized a Capitol Rotunda event, said by 10:30 a.m. that she thought the maximum number of people were inside the Capitol at 500 and an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 were outside.
More than 30 school districts across the state closed Friday because so many teachers were planning to go to the Capitol rally.
Fayette County Superintendent Manny Caulk arrived at the Capitol at 6:50 a.m. Friday. On Monday, he invited Fayette educators to join him, foreshadowing the cancellation of classes.
For Fayette teachers, Friday was observed just like a snow day. They have to work the time, take flexible time, or take personal leave, said district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall.
The protesters outside got to hear speeches from supporters, including Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear.
Beshear filed a lawsuit earlier this week in Franklin Circuit Court with the Kentucky Education Association and state Fraternal Order of Police against a new pension measure that Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signed into law a day earlier.
Beshear told the crowd that his side will win the lawsuit and continued the war of words frequently exchanged between the governor and him.
In his speech Friday, Beshear said the teachers were knowledgeable and the governor was “ignorant.” Bevin, earlier in the week, said Beshear was “incompetent.”
Also at the rally to support teachers was Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, a Democratic candidate for the 6th Congressional District seat now held by Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr.
Gray said his message to the teachers was that pension benefits are “just a part” of education’s concerns.
The first educators in the Capitol rotunda on Friday were Dan Brennan and Jason Griffith from Letcher County.
“I’m hoping to see the state adequately fund education. Right now we are making sure that the programs that benefit children remain in the state's budget,” said Brennan. The Kentucky Education Association urged lawmakers to override Bevin’s vetoes of the budget and a tax bill.
The budget bill contained increased funding for schools and full funding of a state contribution to the public pension system.
Griffith planned to speak on behalf of the proposed Raven Rock Resort and Casino in Jenkins to bring expanded gaming to the state to “shore up the unfounded liability” in the state’s retirement plans.
Ernie Whisman, pupil personnel director in Wolfe County, said he came to Frankfort because “at this point as an educator, I have no faith in the governor.”
Heather Blake, a teacher at Harrison Elementary in Lexington, carried a sign that said, “Lexington burns couches for way less than this.” She said school funding is already cut to a bare minimum with no money for textbooks.
Katie Priddy of Meade County, who is studying at Western Kentucky University to become a special education teacher, said she wants to work in Kentucky but is not sure she will be able to do that.
“It doesn’t seem this governor or legislature want to support us,” she said.
Priddy also said it was “a bit silly” to limit the number of people in the Capitol.
“I understand the need for security, but there were no problems earlier this month when thousands were inside,” she said.
Of the rally, Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Ben Self said, “When people are willing to stand up and be heard for what they believe in, the power of the people cannot be underestimated.
“I’m excited to see the results when teachers and public employees vote in November.”
Tres Watson, a spokesman for the Kentucky Republican Party, said, “We thank teachers, public employees and their unions for the support they’ve shown for the record levels of funding devoted to education in this budget.
“Hopefully, someday soon, Kentucky Democrats will stop playing political games and get on board as well.”