Politics & Government

Teacher protests not enough to stop bill limiting KEA’s power over retirement system

A raucous crowd of Kentucky teachers who skipped school to show their disdain for a bill that would alter how members of the Teachers’ Retirement System Board of Trustees are selected was not enough to deter a panel of House lawmakers from approving the bill Thursday on a party-line vote.

House Bill 525 would change the nominating process for board member, moving the nominations away from the Kentucky Education Association and spreading them among eight eduction-related professional groups.

“I know of no other board, created by statute, that has its membership controlled almost entirely by one private organization,” Rep. Ken Upchurch, R-Monticello, told the House State Government Committee. “Instead, we are gradually expanding the membership of this critically important board.”

Upchurch began his speech by apologizing to parents and students in eight school districts that canceled classes because of “sick-outs” in protest of his bill. He was met with a chorus of boos and jeers from the assembled crowd. One person even hissed.

The board currently consists of 11 members, seven of whom are elected by members of TRS from a group of nominees selected by KEA. The newest version of the bill, which was introduced to the public Thursday morning, would increase the number of members on the board to 13, eight of whom would be elected by members of TRS from nominations put forward by a variety of education groups.

The KEA would only be in charge of nominating two of the eight members, and one of those would be retired. The Kentucky School Board Association, the Jefferson County Teachers’ Association, the Kentucky Association of Professional Educators, the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents and the Kentucky Retired Teachers’ Association would each handle nominations for the six other slots on the board.

Each group would get to nominate three people for a trustee position and those nominees would be voted on by the members of TRS. The bill also would allow the governor to nominate an accountant to the board from a list of three people nominated by the Kentucky Society of Certified Public Accountants. They would join Kentucky’s commissioner of education, the state treasurer and two governor-appointed members with investment experience.

KEA president Stephanie Winkler expressed opposition to HB 525 Thursday during a House committee meeting at the State Capitol in Frankfort. Photo by Matt Goins Matt Goins

KEA president Stephanie Winkler spoke against the bill, saying teachers were satisfied with the process as it currently stands, motioning to the standing-room only crowd behind her and referencing the hundreds of teachers who clogged the hallways of the Capitol Annex.

“This bill doesn’t make things better, nor does it solve a problem,” Winkler said during a debate that lasted more than two hours. “There is no problem with TRS board composition or its performance. There is no legitimate reason to enact these changes.”

Upchurch made significant changes to his original bill, which would have stripped the ability to elect the majority of the board from members of TRS and allowed the Kentucky Bankers Association to appoint a member.

After several scoldings from the chairman of the committee, Rep. Jerry Miller of Louisville, the crowd in the room began waving their hands in the air every time someone said something they liked and giving a thumbs down when a speaker said something they didn’t like. The people in the hallway didn’t do the same. Their cheers and boos could be heard through the walls in the committee room.

Educators waved hands to show their approval so they wouldn’t disrupt the proceedings Thursday during a House committee meeting about HB 525 at the State Capitol in Frankfort. Photo by Matt Goins Matt Goins

Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, got his fair share of thumbs down as he grilled Upchurch about the bill and denounced the sick-out in Jefferson County, calling it “wildly irresponsible.”

“It seems to me the best process is to diversify,” Nemes said. “KEA should have a big seat at the table, but being the only one is what I have a problem with.”

But some of the groups who would gain authority of the bill don’t want it. Winkler said the Kentucky Society of CPAs said they didn’t want a part of the bill and the Kentucky Retired Teachers Association said Thursday they like the current nomination process.

“KRTA is opposed to HB 525 because we have not been presented with any reason why the current structure of the TRS board and selection process is ineffective,” said Tim Abrams, executive director of the group.

Others are quite small in comparison to the KEA. The Kentucky Professional Educators Association has about 3,200 members, few of whom are retirees, compared with KEA’s 43,000 members.

Yet KEA still represents only about 30 percent of the members of TRS, a figure Republicans pounced on when questioning why they have authority over the full nominating process.

Republicans also criticized the teachers for protesting during the bill’s first hearing, saying there was still a long way to go before it became law. Winkler pushed back at that narrative.

“The reason why we’re here at the beginning of this process is because obviously showing up at the end is not what we want to do,” Winkler said. “We want to be a part of the process from the beginning and that was a criticism of us, that we didn’t engage early enough. Well we’re here. We want to engage.”

Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, broke the silent applause and got an ovation from the audience when she said the bill was an attempt to curb the organizing power of teachers.

“It is my judgment, the reason this bill is here today because of your impact,” Flood said to the crowd. “You have changed how we do business and we need to change how we do business here in public education.”

“Please, please, you were doing good with the silent claps,” Miller said.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for a full vote.

Lisa Galloway, a teacher for 27 years, wiped tears as HB 525 was passed in committee Thursday at the State Capitol in Frankfort. Photo by Matt Goins Matt Goins

Daniel Desrochers has been the political reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader since 2016. He previously worked for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia.
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