FRANKFORT — Despite teachers’ protests — and a massive “sickout” that forced Kentucky’s two largest school districts to shut down — a bill to restructure the state teacher pension board advanced Thursday.
The leader of a grassroots advocacy group that called for the sickout expressed disgust with the outcome but stopped short of calling for schools to close for a second day.
“We are returning to our communities and students tomorrow,” Nema Brewer, founder of KY 120 United, said early Thursday evening.
But Brewer signaled that teachers weren’t necessarily standing down.
“We are at the ready,” she said. “We are ready for whatever Frankfort throws our way. Take that to the bank.”
Hundreds of Kentucky teachers descended on the state Capitol after staging a sickout that shut down at least eight school districts, including those in Louisville and Lexington.
Questions and answers: Why did Kentucky teachers call a sickout over pension bill?
Those teachers were heeding the call from Brewer’s group to head to Frankfort in protest of a bill that would affect the management of the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System.
Ultimately, their efforts would fail, as the bill sparking the protest passed out of a legislative committee to the jeers of teachers jammed into a packed Frankfort hearing room.
Brewer, a Fayette County public schools employee, said she wasn’t surprised by the result.
“This is how Frankfort works,” she said. ” … Nobody wants to listen to anybody.”
Several Republican lawmakers, including the bill’s sponsor, criticized teachers who took part in the sickout.
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But Brewer said the drastic move was necessary.
“Here’s why we shut it down,” she said. “Every bit of action that takes place in Frankfort takes place when people like all these people here are in the classroom, whenever all of us are busting our heinie for their kids … They tell us to call. They tell us to email. And you know what they do? They wad it up and throw it in the trash.”
The list: These Kentucky school districts are closed due to teacher ‘sickout’
By mid-morning, hundreds of teachers donning red streamed into the Capitol Annex and headed to the room where a House committee heard House Bill 525.
HB 525 would restructure the board that manages teachers’ pensions. Under the changes, the Kentucky Education Association would have less representation on the board.
The statewide teachers union, which represents nearly 30,000 active members, would be able to nominate just one board member. It currently controls the nominations process for the majority of the 11-member board.
The union said the bill is retaliation for teachers’ continued protests over changes to the pension system.
But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ken Upchurch, R-Monticello, said a committee substitute of the bill introduced Thursday addressed those concerns.
It scraps at least one controversial provision, which would have given the Kentucky Bankers Association representation on the board. It also adds a seat for a representative of the Jefferson County Teacher Association, which represents about one-sixth of the state’s educators.
Upchurch said he’s already heard from teachers who are satisfied with those changes.
‘We are not striking’ say Kentucky teachers at Thursday’s sick out where hundreds of educators protested House Bill 525.
Matt Stone, Louisville Courier Journal
“You explain it to the affected parties, and they’re saying, ‘well why are we calling off school today? Why are we going through all of this fever-pitched frenzy for what you’re trying to do here? We like what you’re trying to do.’”
By the time the noon hearing began, the room was a sea of red, with teachers donning T-shirts stating their support for Kentucky public education. As lawmakers trickled into the room, the crowd burst into chants of: “our teachers, our board!”
Once the meeting began with some unrelated bills, teachers inside the stifling room were instructed to remain quiet, while hundreds more protested from behind closed doors. Chants of “keep your hands off my pension” forced their way from the hallway and into the hearing room each time the doors swung open.
Laura Rhea, a teacher with Jefferson County Public Schools, arrived in Frankfort early Thursday so that she could nab a seat in the crowded room.
She said she chose to call in sick to let lawmakers know she’s fed up.
“The thought of removing most of the teacher representation in this board is ludicrous,” Rhea said prior to the hearing start. “It’s a slap in the face.”
Rhea, who’s nearing retirement, said she’s concerned that changes to the pension board could affect the state’s ability to attract teachers in the future.
“If compensation, benefits and guarantees aren’t there — well, that’s part of the attraction,” she said.
Other reactions: Kentucky schools chief slams teacher sickout for being ‘unfair’ to kids
In his testimony about the pension board bill, Upchurch took aim at the Kentucky Education Association and argued that it shouldn’t have sole control over the nominations process.
Under the latest version of the bill, several Kentucky educator groups would be able to nominate board members, including the state associations that represent school administrators and district superintendents.
Speaking in opposition to the bill, KEA President Stephanie Winkler said her group is open to all nominations and has put forward several members who do not belong to the teachers union.
Changes in the bill represent a breach of trust in a system that has worked well for 75 years, Winkler said.
“There is no legitimate reason to enact these changes,” said Winkler, noting that the teachers’ pension system, which is funded at roughly 55 percent, is much healthier than other pension funds in the state.
But Republicans on the House committee insisted that the teachers union has too much influence over the current board.
“You represent only 50 percent of educators, so why is it fair for you to have sole control?” asked Rep. Jim DuPlessis, R-Elizabethtown.
Rep. Jason Nemes, a Louisville Republican, voted in favor of the bill and said he hadn’t heard complaints about it from teachers until late Wednesday night — when he said “chaos ensued” as school districts began announcing closures.
“Whether you’re for this bill or not, it is wildly irresponsible,” he said of the sickout.
Several teachers that traveled to Frankfort on Thursday said the protest was about more than the pension board bill.
Steve Farris, a JCPS teacher, held a sign listing more than a dozen grievances with Gov. Matt Bevin.
One of the grievances referenced comments Bevin made last year criticizing teacher protests, including claims that the sickouts caused unattended children to be molested.
Teachers’ fury over those comments hasn’t gone away, Farris said.
“It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” he said.
In Louisville: JCPS will extend last day of school to make up Thursday’s closure
Kevin Presnell, a teacher from Madison County, said he also traveled to the Capitol to let lawmakers know that educators are paying attention.
“We’re not going to deal with these underhanded tricks anymore,” said Presnell, who added that the pension board bill is “retribution for a lot of teachers standing up.”
Presnell said he first became involved in the #RedforEd movement last year, when lawmakers rushed through a surprise pension reform bill. Before that, he had never attended a protest, he said.
After massive protests, lawmakers backed down on some of the more controversial provisions of that legislation.
“We’re starting to see that we can have a voice,” Presnell said.
Rhea, who teaches government to high schoolers, balked at criticism of the sickout, including condemnation from Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis.
She said she would tell her students she spent Thursday exercising her First Amendment rights.
“I think there’s a great lesson in this for our kids,” Rhea said. “I could be at home in bed right now, but this is a cause worth fighting for.”
Mandy McLaren: 502-582-4525; [email protected]; Twitter: @mandy_mclaren. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/mandym.
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