Kentucky state Senators on Wednesday took the first step toward passing a bill they say would save taxpayers $3.2 billion over the next 20 years and stabilize one of the country's worst-funded public pension systems. But most of those savings would come from a 33 percent cut to the annual cost-of-living raises for retired teachers, who are not eligible for Social Security benefits.
Teachers have called lawmakers and packed legislative committee rooms to show their opposition. But Thursday was the first organized protest at public schools in front of parents and students. It came just days after a nine-day statewide teacher strike in West Virginia ended when lawmakers there approved 5 percent raises.
"I think that Gov. Matt Bevin is not going to listen to anything else," Suzanne Sadler, a 33-year-old science teacher at Elkhorn Middle School in Frankfort, said of a possible strike. "He's not listening to anything on Facebook. He's not listening to our teachers who went to the Capitol. He's just not listening, so we need to make him listen."
Momentum is building around the nation for protests over pay and benefits for public school teachers. Teachers in Arizona are contemplating actions of their own amid growing frustration over meager pay. In Oklahoma, the president of the state's largest teachers' organization said Thursday that teachers will walk out of their classrooms April 2 if lawmakers don't approve a $6,000 raise by April 1. Teacher pay hasn't been raised by that state's legislature since 2008.
In Kentucky, teachers at 28 schools in eight districts around the state had planned to participate in protests. Sadler was one of about 50 teachers and staff from two public schools in the state Capitol who stood on the side of a busy road in frigid weather to hold signs opposing Senate bill 1. Shortly after 8 a.m., the teachers held a "walk in" as they all entered school together as a show of unity.
"There's people talking about a strike, I'm going to tell you that now. And would I support it? I would have to," said Su Sheridan, an art teacher at Elkhorn Middle School who is nearing retirement after a 33-year career. "Here's the thing: We're all calling and saying 'no' to Senate bill whatever, and I thought that would do it. But, you know, I'm not sure they're listening to phone calls."
Kentucky's public pension systems are among the worst-funded in the country. The state is at least $41 billion short of the money it will need to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years, according to official estimates. Bevin, Kentucky's Republican governor, says the true number is far higher than that.
State lawmakers have taken painful steps to ensure the system is fully funded this year. Bevin's budget proposal would put $3.3 billion in the pension system, or 15 percent of all state spending, cutting most other state agencies by more than 6 percent to pay for it. The House-approved budget proposal would raise taxes on cigarettes and impose a new tax on opioids in part to pay for rising pension costs.
Asked about the "walk in" protests, Kentucky's acting House Speaker David Osborne said: "I hope they walk in every day to teach our kids." On Wednesday, Bevin said anyone opposing pension changes is "either ill-informed or willfully blind." He went further during a Thursday morning radio interview on WKYX, noting that no one else in state government gets an annual cost-of-living adjustment.
"The idea that we are hanging onto this as somehow a sacred thing is silliness," Bevin said. "And the idea that people in retirement would rather get every cent they can get now with no guarantee the checks will keep coming for them or those still working is, frankly, selfish."
Teachers complain lawmakers won't consider other options for raising revenue, such as legalizing casino gambling as some neighboring states have done. Local Kentucky Education Association union president Kelly Beckett said teachers are some of the "most highly educated voters in our state."
"We completely understand what he's trying to do to public education and we are not going to stand for it," Beckett said. The proposed changes would also affect school boards, requiring them to pay 2 percent of every new hire's salary into the Kentucky Teachers' Retirement System. It would be the first time the state's cash-strapped districts have had to contribute to teachers' retirement, a cost that has until now been carried 100 percent by state government.
"We've known where the governor stands on the issue of public education for a very long time," Franklin County Schools Superintendent Mark Kopp said. "He doesn't stand with teachers, and I do."