Teachers, others rally to protect retirement benefits
Teachers, retirees, as well as state and county employees attended a rally at Woodford County High School last week as one voice urging state lawmakers to protect their pension benefits. The rally happened several days after Gov. Matt Bevin and Republican legislative leaders unveiled their proposal to implement several changes to state retirement systems in Kentucky to shore up a multi-billion-dollar unfunded liability. A special session of Kentucky's General Assembly will likely be called by the governor before next year, so lawmakers can consider a bill implementing these proposed changes to state retirement systems. State Sen. Julian Carroll and state Rep. James Kay, both Democrats, described the proposal to reform the pension systems for educators and county and state employees as shortsighted and wrong - morally and legally. "Our state employees and our teachers deserve more respect than they've been given under this plan. You deserve to retire with dignity because everybody deserves to retire with dignity," Kay told those at last Thursday's rally. "But more importantly, you've been given a promise. And during the years that you've worked for either state government or our schools, you've been asked to sacrifice." He cited furloughs, pay freezes and salary cuts endured by state employees in the past as examples of their sacrifices over the years. To illustrate other sacrifices made by teachers, many of them at last week's rally raised their hands when Kay asked them if they've gone into their own wallets to buy classroom supplies. With their contributions into the retirement systems, the pensions provided to teachers, as well as county and state employees are "not an entitlement," Kay said. "This is not a government giveaway. This is not welfare. This is your money, and they've mismanaged it and mishandled it in Frankfort for years. "The reason that we are in this mess is because legislators and governors have failed to fund the pension (adequately) by billions of dollars." He argued dollars that go into the teacher retirement system will help fund new private charter schools in Kentucky. "Certainly," Carroll said later, "you can't solve this pension problem on the backs of those who are getting the pensions." While Woodford County Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins said he appreciates the work being undertaken by Gov. Bevin and state legislators, and understands there's a funding issue when it comes to state pension systems, he fears that the proposed pension plan "is the beginning of the end of public education." Hawkins said educators have been unfairly labeled as sick day hoarders and fear mongers, when in reality they are dedicated professionals who want to change lives. "And they did so," he said, "knowing that the pay was not great, the sacrifices would be many, but the feeling that you get from a job well done along with a secure pension make it worth it." He urged state lawmakers to look at each retirement system separately because those systems can be sustainable over the long haul. Of the proposed changes to the teacher retirement system, he said, "I fear that we'll lose many teachers, our most experienced teachers, and we'll lose them before they are ready to retire." With fewer people already going into the teaching profession, lawmakers should not make changes to a retirement system that will further lower those numbers, he said. "Anything that we do that is a detriment to that public educational system," said Hawkins, "hurts one group of people and that's our kids." Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler, a former Madison County teacher in her 20th year in public education, said KEA's members have implored state lawmakers to fully fund their pension system for years. She said people who are not teachers or state and county employees should care about the pension issue because without those men and women providing those public services "our communities stop." Winkler argued that there's no reason these employees should have to switch from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. That proposed change and others she said, would "devastate public education as we know it." "The bottom line," Winkler said, "is we don't have a structural problem (in our retirement system). We have a funding problem in the commonwealth of Kentucky." She said school districts in parts of the state are struggling to pay their operational expenses because of this funding problem. WCHS teacher David Graves, president of the Woodford County Education Association, welcomed those attending last Thursday afternoon's rally at the WCHS library. "I was really hoping for thousands," he told them, "because this really affects thousands." And in voicing his displeasure with the pension proposal, Graves said, "I really, truly want what I thought I was going to have. I've made plans for my life ... I want to be able to afford to live."