Politics & Government

Kentucky teachers returning to classrooms Friday after day of protesting pension bill

Angry teachers crowd Capitol Annex over pension board bill

Kentucky teachers returned to Frankfort to protest House Bill 525, a legislative proposal that would change the makeup of the board that oversees the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System.
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Kentucky teachers returned to Frankfort to protest House Bill 525, a legislative proposal that would change the makeup of the board that oversees the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System.

Kentucky teachers will return to their classrooms Friday after many held a “sick-out” Thursday to protest a bill that would restructure the board that oversees the Teachers’ Retirement System of Kentucky.

“We are returning to our communities and students tomorrow,” said Nema Brewer, a co-founder of the KY United 120 group that called for the sick-out. “We are at the ready. We are ready for whatever Frankfort throws our way. Take that to the bank.”

Hundreds of teachers left Frankfort disappointed Thursday but determined to fight on after a House committee approved the teachers’ retirement board measure and sent it to the full House for its consideration.

The crowd was the result of a “sick-out” that canceled schools in the state’s two largest school districts, Fayette and Jefferson, and at least six other counties: Boyd, Letcher, Carter, Bath, Madison and Marion counties.

The scene was reminiscent of large rallies of teachers who swarmed the Capitol in last year’s legislative session to protest a public pension bill backed by the Republican-led legislature and Gov. Matt Bevin that the Kentucky Supreme Court later ruled unconstitutional.

The bill teachers are protesting this year, House Bill 525, would change the way members of the retirement system board are selected, dramatically reducing the influence of the Kentucky Education Association.

It would increase the number of board members from 11 to 13 while moving control over the nominations away from KEA and spreading them among seven education-related professional groups. The KEA now controls the nominating process for seven of the board’s 11 members.

The hallways inside the Capitol Annex were packed Thursday with people protesting a bill that would restructure the board of the Teachers Retirement System, reducing educator control over investments. Marcus Dorsey mdorsey@herald-leader.com

“We learned last year that a lot of things happen in Frankfort early that turn into big changes later,” said Laura Gallien, a special education teacher at Lexington’s Tates Creek High School who stood in a long line in the cold Thursday morning to enter the Capitol Annex. “We feel we need to be here to make sure another fast one is not pulled on teachers.”

Leslie Busch, a special education teacher at Glendover Elementary School in Lexington who was waiting in line, said teachers have had enough. “It’s time to stand up and fight for our teachers, our students and public schools and public workers,” she said.

Busch said she was pleased so many teachers reacted so quickly and showed up at Frankfort.

“If we don’t show up, they will go ahead and do what they want to do without any input from us,” Busch said.

KY 120 United’s Brewer, who is a multimedia production specialist in the Fayette County school system, said she was not surprised the committee approved the bill.

“This is how Frankfort works. We are all party-line any more and nobody wants to listen to anybody,” said Brewer. “They all knew how they were going to vote even before they came to committee.”

Brewer was especially upset with state Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, who repeatedly referred to the sick-out as “a strike.” Kentucky law prohibits public employees from striking, she said.

“This is not a strike,” she said. “It’s an advocacy day for our people to learn who all the rats are around here.”

Educators and supporters gathered inside the Capitol Annex in Frankfort for the House State Government Committee meeting Thursday. Some teachers in the state staged a “sick out” and forced schools to close over a proposed bill that would eliminate educator control of a board overseeing investments for the Teacher Retirement System. Marcus Dorsey mdorsey@herald-leader.com

Brewer said the sick-out was about more than HB 525. She said it was about “the last year, it’s about every attack, every insult, it’s about every person who has felt less in their profession because their own government feels that way.”

She said there are 10 working days left in this year’s session and “we will hold the line” on state legislators and other bills pertaining to public education. Thursday was the 21st day of the 30-day session that is to end in late March.

Kentucky Education Association Stephanie Winkler was asked after the committee meeting what she thought about the teacher sick-out.

“We are united when it counts,” she said. “To say people are not going to band together and unite and try to do every thing they think possible to advocate for themselves, I don’t think we should begrudge anyone for that.”

Penny Christian, president-elect of the 16th District PTA, which includes Fayette County, said that as a parent and child advocate, “I absolutely support” the sick-out.

“Part of our charge as a member of PTA is to support the educators who are with our children on a daily basis, in the trenches,” Christian said. “We live in a state where public education is not only not supported, but minimized, ridiculed, and vilified. If our teachers cannot walk into the classroom on a daily basis knowing they are protected, we will lose the best in the profession. Our kids deserve better. “

Some Republican lawmakers were quick to denounce the sick-out, saying the bill is still early in the legislative process and that it is likely to see changes before it gets a vote in the House of Representatives.

“It is staggering that people would strike so early in the process and more astonishing that the organization that says they represent teachers’ best interests has called for it,” Rep. Ken Upchurch, R-Monticello, said late Wednesday.

Many teachers watched the committee from a nearby room in the Annex used to accommodate the overflow crowd.

They cheered when lawmakers spoke against HB 150 and jeered when legislators supported it.

The crowd of teachers attracted three Democratic candidates for governor who offered their support.

Attorney General Andy Beshear said in a statement that HB 525 is “yet another power grab by Gov. Bevin, who is retaliating over his defeat last year when he tried to illegally slash the promised retirements of our public servants.”

“When thousands of teachers show up to oppose a bill, you shouldn’t pass it,” Beshear said.

House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, another gubernatorial candidate, was allowed to speak to the House committee during its hearing. He said there was no need to change the makeup of a board that is working properly.

Former state Auditor Adam Edelen said in a statement that the bill is “political retribution against Kentucky’s teachers for having the guts to stand up to Matt Bevin and Frankfort politicians.”

“Changing the TRS board and dismantling a structure that has served teachers well for 75 years, out-performing the state’s other pension systems, is petty and foolish,” Edelen said.

Bevin’s communications office did not respond to a request for a comment from the governor.

The governor got in political hot water last year when he guaranteed that teachers’ absences from classrooms to protest in Frankfort led to the sexual assault of children left home alone.

He later apologized but some doubted his sincerity.

Thousands of Kentucky teachers stormed the state Capitol April 2 to protest pension benefit cuts, oppose charter schools and advocate for better education funding.

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.