Teacher absences force Ky. districts to close schools

Bruce Schreiner
Associated Press

Louisville, Ky. – Hundreds of Kentucky teachers called in sick on Friday to protest last-minute changes to their pension system, forcing nearly two dozen districts to close while angry educators rallied outside of the governor’s office to demand he not sign the bill.

With thunderous chants of “shut it down” echoing throughout the Capitol Rotunda, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear used a megaphone to announce he would sue to block the bill’s implementation if Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signs it into law.

The show of force comes amid growing unrest among public educators nationwide, led by thousands of West Virginia teachers who walked off the job for nine days earlier this year to secure a 5 percent pay raise. Teacher unrest spread to another deep red state in Oklahoma, where the GOP-led legislature approved money for teacher raises and more school funding. Teachers are mulling whether the current offer from lawmakers is enough to avert a work stoppage.

Teachers in Kentucky indicated they did not know what they would do beyond Friday. Much of the state is on spring break next week. Kentucky’s Legislature didn’t meet Friday but is scheduled to reconvene Monday. They may be greeted by throngs of angry teachers, as leaders with the Kentucky Education Association are hoping to “get as many people here as possible,” an association official said.

Kentucky’s pension system is among the worst-funded in the country. The state is at least $41 billion short of the money it needs to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years, placing a strain on state and local government finances.

On Thursday night, the state legislature passed a bill that preserves most benefits for current public workers. But it would require all new teachers to use a hybrid plan that does not guarantee them a set pension amount when they retire. Instead, they would live off the money accumulated in their accounts from contributions and investment returns, which would be guaranteed not to lose money.

“Why would anybody go into teaching now in the state of Kentucky,” asked Whitney Walker, a government teacher at Lafayette High School in Fayette County, the state’s second-largest district that was forced to close on Friday. “We need good teachers, not just anybody who would walk in the door.”

Acting House Speaker David Osborne said the bill “gets the state out of the risk business,” while acknowledging it would not save the state much money in the short term. But Beshear, a potential candidate for governor in 2019, said lawmakers broke the law by passing the bill without a financial analysis of how it would affect the retirement system.

Osborne said the state Supreme Court has interpreted that law as a House rule, which lawmakers can suspend at any time.

Republicans turned to state Rep. John “Bam” Carney to carry the bill on Thursday, a former social studies teacher who still works for his local school district.

“I understand people being frustrated and concerned, but again I would hope that we as a profession, educators and all, would remember what we got into this business for,” he said Friday.

Jefferson County officials in Louisville, one of the largest school districts in the country, said they couldn’t get enough substitutes to cover all their classes Friday. In Fayette County, officials said more than a third of school employees in the Lexington district were staying home.

North of Lexington, the Scott County school district called off classes. It said on Facebook that since the bill’s passage, dozens of teachers requested substitutes to fill in for them Friday.

“We can currently only fill 54 of the nearly 150 that we need,” the statement said. “That leaves too many classes not covered, which causes a situation that is unsafe and unproductive for students and staff.”

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin supports the bill and tweeted Thursday night that public workers owe “a deep debt of gratitude” to the lawmakers who voted in favor.