Among the estimated 8,000 people who packed the Capitol complex in Frankfort Monday to rally in support of education funding, where a number of active and retired teachers from area school districts.
Bill Conn is a fifth generation teacher, who is currently in his 13th year at Williamsburg Independent School. Conn said he was happy with the turnout Monday, especially given that most school districts in the state were out on spring break.
“It was very empowering,” Conn said. “It was amazing to have thousands of fellow citizens that cared so much for proper funding for public education. As a teacher, it is good to know that people really care about public education.”
Conn said that he was very happy that the state legislature funded transportation, the SEEK formula, and the youth service centers, which he noted are
absolutely vital to education in eastern Kentucky.
Conn said he has mixed feelings about the pension reform bill.
He was happy that the state legislature didn’t change the cost of living adjustment for retired teachers, like his mother, and that they left the pension system largely intact for current employees except for the fact that they can’t accrue additional sick days after this year and put them towards their retirement.
Conn said he was disappointed to see the legislature moving new teachers into a 401-A retirement plan, which is similar to a 401-K retirement plan.
“I worry about teacher retention. I disagree with that because teachers still yet don’t get social security,” Conn said. “At the same time I worry about the future of our pension, and then I also worry about the cost. For those currently in the system, how is that going to get funded? I worry about those two ideas going forward.”
Conn noted that the issue of pension reform might not be over either given planned lawsuits by Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear and others.
“Even with the current changes, we may have to go back and do this again,” Conn added.
Lee Hensley is a retired educator with the Whitley County school district, who spent 34 years in education as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and central office administrator.
This legislative session, she has traveled to Frankfort on average once a week along with other local retired teachers to keep up with what is happening with discussions about the pension system and funding for education.
“I was not up there for myself. I was up there for the teachers because they have to be in the classroom. They can’t leave the classroom all day to go up there to collect information and try to understand it,” she noted.
Hensley said that she doesn’t think a lot people realized the magnitude of the pension reform, which she said could have been a lot worse.
Like Conn, one of her biggest concerns with the pension system is the moving of future teachers to a 401-A retirement system rather than a traditional pension system.
“I am really concerned that this is going to be a great detriment to the future of education in Kentucky. People have to feed their families. People have to know that they are will have a retirement that they can survive on,” she noted.
“When you take that away, even though someone loves the profession, they have to be realistic. They have to ask will I be able to survive as a teacher even though I want to do that so much? Will I be able to make it? They are not guaranteed the pension like those of us already retired. The new hirers are going to be under that not as stable program.”
Hensley said she knows some people in college, who are majoring in education but are thinking about changing their majors because they just don’t feel like the education profession is stable and secure.
“It is really sad,” she added.
Hensley said she has another concern about how the pension program for current teachers will be funded, especially since the new hirers won’t be paying into the pension system.
“It is a complex situation and we are going to lose some really capable people in the future. Education is too important. It is important to the state. It is important to families,” Hensley said. “You are dealing with people. Not only dollars, but with people. They do have to pay their bills. They are not asking for more pay. They just want that pension that was promised.”
She added that the pension is the only thing that retired teachers in Kentucky have because they can’t pay into social security.
“The pension is all they have. It is not like they are making a lot of money and are going to have all these investments,” she added. “Most people are spending the money they make as teachers raising their family and paying their bills.”
Hensley gives Bevin credit for putting a huge amount of money into the pension system. She still thinks the state needs a dedicated source of funding for the pension system.
Hensley noted that a lot of people were really hurt by how the legislature passed the pension bill by adding it onto an unrelated bill late in the session, even though legislators told her this is just how it is done.
“I know they are saying that, but it is hurtful because there were other options that could have been considered,” Hensley said.
Janet Logan, a reading specialist at Oak Grove Elementary, is a 26-year veteran of the classroom.
Logan said she was one of a large group of educators from the PreK-6 school that included teachers from each grade and group, including the administration.
“It was almost surreal. It was unlike anything I have been a part of before,” Logan said. “It was very inspirational to see that many fighting for one cause.”
Logan said unlike what was reported by many national media outlets, Monday was not about pensions and the teachers did not walk out or go on strike to participate.
“Yesterday (Monday) was strictly about funding for education, trying to prevent all of the cuts they (legislators) were trying to make,” Logan said “As a rural school, that would have detrimental effects on our students.”
Logan pointed to the proposed cuts in transportation, the family resource center program and after school programs as specific areas with which she was concerned.
“A lot of parents are very dependent on those programs,” Logan said.
Logan explained that to someone that hasn’t stepped inside a classroom since they left high school, it may appear that education is the same as it always was.
“There are a lot of outside influences on students that affect the way they perform in the classroom. More and more, teachers are taking on the role of parent and caregiver to some of their students,” she added.
Logan said she felt confident that the legislators heard the message. However, it remains to be seen whether Governor Matt Bevin did. While the legislature has approved the budget, Bevin has the line-item veto power, which is something Logan is watching closely.
Logan extended an invitation to the governor to come to Oak Grove and spend one day, not just observing her in action, but attempting to do her job.
“If he would do that, he would understand the outrage that was there yesterday,” Logan said.
Corbin High School teachers and students held their own protest on campus following instructional time last Friday.
Chris Hart, a business, economics and marketing instructor at CHS, said it was nice to have students join alongside teachers.
“It’s amazing how much the students are behind us,” Hart said. “They know how hard we work and how many hours we put in, and they know how much we care about them. They care about us too.”
Hart recognized that most of the changes in legislation passed last week would only impact newly hired teachers in Kentucky. He worries about the overall erosion the move could have on the quality of education in the state. He also said piggybacking the legislation on the back of an unrelated bill sends a bad message.
“As teachers, we are educated enough to understand that there are some things that need to be done, but we feel like it was not handled in the most appropriate way … the way they hid it in a sewer bill and not allowing anyone to come in and voice the opposition and question it,” Hart said. “It was not the appropriate way to do it. It’s not what we teach in school.”
Samantha Fox, a student at CHS, said she decided to join the teachers not just as a show of solidarity over pensions, but to oppose past cuts, and further proposed cuts, to things like textbook funding and bus transportation.
“It’s not just the pension part of it. It’s the fact that they aren’t funding our textbooks and school buses … those are things kids need,” Fox said. “You can’t get an education without those things.”
Jonathan Goodwin, a Spanish teacher at the school, said he hopes the protests by teachers across the state “piques public interest” and gets people to “ask questions about what has been going on recently and some of the effects that may occur.” He particularly focused on weakening of what is called the “inviolable contract,” a promise of benefits for teachers when it comes to their retirement.
“Future teachers no longer will have an inviolable contract … that no longer exists with the bill that was passed,” Goodwin said.
He added that forcing new teachers into less desirable “hybrid” retirement plans does little to address the current $40 billion in unfunded liabilities the pension system has.
“We all agree something should be done. There’s not one teacher I work with that’s informed, and who is following what’s going on that thinks we should just maintain the status quo.”
Corbin schools are on spring break this week. Hart said that while over 20 school districts in Kentucky were forced to shut down last Friday because of teacher absences, teachers at CHS thought showing up for work was more productive.
“We wanted to be here with our kids, but we wanted to come out and show support for those teachers even though we decided to come to school,” Hart said. “We thought that was the right way to do things.”