Thousands of Ky. teachers voice their displeasure with pension reform bill by marching on Capitol

Thousands of Kentucky teachers came to the Capitol April 2, 2018, to protest against Senate Bill 151, the so-called "sewer bill" that altered pensions for future educators and was later overturned.

FRANKFORT – The shouts and chants of thousands of Kentucky teachers reverberated throughout the Capitol on Monday as they protested a bill that drastically changes pensions offered to future educators that swiftly cleared the General Assembly last week.

School districts across the state closed, either for spring break or to attend Monday’s demonstration, as teachers marched on the Capitol, armed with signs and chanting slogans like, “Vote them out,” “Fund our schools,” “We will remember,” and “West Virginia,” an allusion to that state’s recent teacher strike for pay raises.

“Today we’re going to make our voice heard,” said Kentucky Education Association Vice President Eddie Campbell told those assembled outside KEA headquarters. “Today we’re going to stand here, we’re going to let them know that we are in Frankfort and we will be watching them. Today we demand a government of transparency, of equity and of respect.”

Protesters like kindergarten teacher Missy Stebbins echoed the sentiment that lawmakers need to support education. "We respect our kids, their future, all the upcoming teachers that are in school right now--to respect the work that they're putting in because they're not doing that, and I think that's the one thing is that we all want our voices to be heard. Because we don't feel like we are being heard," she said. 

Lawmakers had to weave through throngs of protesting teachers assembled outside the House and Senate. Teachers booed those who voted for Senate Bill 151, the pension reform bill, and cheered legislators who opposed SB 151.

For many teachers, last week’s surprise pension reform bill that passed both chambers and went to Gov. Matt Bevin’s desk on Thursday prompted them to travel to Frankfort and voice their displeasure. Others cited proposed budget cuts to education programs as their motivation to attend Monday’s march.

“We care enough to take time from spring break to come here to show how important it is and not happy with what happened with the pension bill, not how it happened at all,” Catherine Piatt, a teacher at Liberty Elementary in Fayette County, said outside KEA headquarters as educators gathered for Monday’s march, some of them dropped off by a fleet of school buses.

“A lot of what’s in it is still disturbing, and that’s money that we’ve had no choice over. We’ve done our part, and now we expect them to do their part.”

SB 151 will move future teachers into a hybrid cash balance retirement plan, which combines aspects of defined-benefit pensions and defined-contribution accounts; cap sick days and not allow that leave time to count toward retirement eligibility; and transition the state’s pension plans, which have more than $40 billion in unfunded liabilities, to a level-dollar funding approach, among other changes.

Supporters say SB 151 is a prudent move to help retire Kentucky’s pension debt while opponents say the structural changes will make it more difficult to recruit and retain educators in the state. Attorney General Andy Beshear has said he will try to block SB 151 in court.

Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, voted for SB 151 but said he did not appreciate the legislation's hurried path toward passage Thursday. He believes supporters of pension reform and the biennial budget have not used an effective messaging strategy, especially considering SB 151 includes provisions proposed by education groups like KEA and the budget, House Bill 200, restores numerous education cuts, boosts per-pupil spending in Kentucky classrooms to $4,000, includes health care funding for retired teachers and increases funding for the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System.

He also noted that charter school funding was not included in the negotiated budget.

"We need to do a better job, as I've said a number of times, of getting our message out," Nemes told WDRB News. "We think our message is a good message, a message that's very pro-public education. Our budget, which we will pass today, has historic levels of funding for education across the board, highest levels of funding for (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky) in the history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky with $4,000 per kid. That's higher than it's ever been. It's getting us back on track with where  we were before the 2008 recession."

Nemes said he believes Republican lawmakers have enough time to educate the public on what's included in the budget and pension reform bills ahead of the November elections.

The GOP won control of the House for the first time in nearly a century during the 2016 election cycle and hold a 63-37 supermajority in the lower chamber.

"I'm interested in educating everyone, and I think we can walk together in a very proud way knowing that we funded public education very strongly," Nemes said.

SB 151 drew bipartisan opposition on Thursday, and some Republican and Democratic lawmakers stood outside KEA headquarters as teachers readied for the march.

“Every party needs to work together in order to come to positive solutions for our kids and our public employees,” KEA President Stephanie Winkler said during her remarks at Monday’s rally.

A number of school districts also closed Friday as enough teachers called in sick to cancel classes. Piatt said she thought that was the right move because teachers have tried to make their voices heard during the session and with schools out, parents and others are starting to take notice.

“Teachers tried lots of other moves like calling legislators, getting family and friends to call legislators, coming and rallying after school, doing walk-ins at our own schools,” she said. “We tried lots of other things. None of that was effective, and so I think it was a necessary move to gain the attention of the state, to gain the attention of the public. Some people who have not cared yet care because their kids are missing school now, and now they’re paying attention.”

“I think we felt like we were backed in a corner and we had no other choice,” said Becky Fritz, a teacher at Picadome Elementary School in Fayette County.

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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