Kentucky

Outraged Kentucky teachers have gathered at the state capitol to demand full funding for public education as lawmakers finalize the budget.

Aside from increasing funding for K-12 schools and increasing the salaries of Kentucky teachers and other public employees, teachers rallied on Monday to protest the sudden passage of a bill cutting teachers’ pensions in violation of state law.

Republican legislators say a package of pension cuts that were forced through both houses of the Kentucky general assembly would save the state $300 million over the next 30 years, but the Kentucky state employees’ pension fund is currently at a whopping $41 billion in unfunded liabilities.

“They want to be able to say they’ve fixed this thing. What they’re not understanding is, they’ve only ‘fixed’ a tiny percentage. They haven’t fixed the revenue problem, and that’s the real problem,” Fawn Knight, who taught in Eastern Kentucky for 44 years, told Grit Post.

Details of the bill are still unclear, due to the fact that the 291-page bill was made public and then voted through on the very same day. Republican legislators swapped the pension language into what was originally planned to be a sewage bill on Thursday, and promptly voted it through on party lines.

“It’s one thing if it’s argued fairly and debated and you lose. This wasn’t,” Jane Modlin, who teaches at Paul Blazer High School, told Grit Post. “This was underhanded, it was behind our backs, it was behind closed doors.”

“And attached to a waste water bill that makes us feel as if we were unimportant as sewage,” added Karen Van Kirk, also of Paul Blazer.

In addition to many other cuts, teachers’ pension benefits are being changed to a cash-only plan, which protesters say is a violation of the “inviolable contract” that guarantees state employees receive the benefits promised to them when they were hired.

“It breaks apart the trust that teachers who have been in the profession for years and years have in their state to take care of them when they retire,” said Julia Baird of Union County Middle School. “This is not tax money that was taken for our retirement, this is money that was paid in, and I think a lot of people don’t understand that.”

“They don’t understand living paycheck to paycheck,” Modlin said. “And I don’t think they understand that we’re paying our money into the pension. It’s not a gold watch, it’s not a gift. It’s my money that they’re supposed to match and they’re not giving it back.”

Teacher protests closed 25 schools on Monday, with closures in 26 school districts on Friday. Supporters of the bill have accused protesters of neglecting their students for financial gain, but some of the most commonly cited concerns among the protesters included cuts to the youth services program, which feeds underprivileged students, and the prospect of future teachers leaving Kentucky for better opportunities.

“I teach in a very rural area,” said Jennifer Gasparac of Harold Whitaker Middle School. “My students, we’re feeding them today because we’re not at school. Some of them won’t get food unless they’re at school. [Gov. Matt Bevin] has no idea what we deal with every day. He wants charter schools, our students don’t even have a place to lay their head. No. We teach all kids the same.”

“As new teachers are needed, many of the better teachers are going to choose to teach somewhere else other than Kentucky. And that’s a disadvantage to our students,” said teacher Leonard Knight. “Our students need the very best teachers they can get. They need people who will encourage them… who will teach them how to, not just read, but lead, and be the kind of people we want to have in Kentucky.”

The pension cuts are currently on Gov. Bevin’s desk, who is expected to sign it. Teachers have vowed to continue fighting, and a second, possibly even larger rally is planned for later this evening for teachers who chose to attend school before protesting.

“Right now this one wants to be a teacher,” said Kathy Phelps, referring to a child attending the rally with her. “And I could not tell her to do that here in Kentucky. She could not make a living with it.”

 

Nathan Wellman is a journalist from Los Angeles who has written for US Uncut and Grit Post. Follow him on Twitter: @LIGHTNINGWOW

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