• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Educators say pension bill will hurt students, profession

With “a lot of disgust,” that’s how Southside Elementary School first-grade teacher Keli Back said she reacted when she learned of a public pension reform bill approved by the state House of Representatives and Senate last Thursday, March 29.

“It is extremely disappointing that we’ve worked so hard for so long at this point and legislators are choosing to ignore us,” said Back. She described Senate Bill 151 as devastating to the teaching profession and has no doubt Gov. Matt Bevin will sign the bill.

This Republican-backed legislation “will hurt the students more than anything, because teachers are going to leave the state,” said Back, who has been a teacher for 17 years.

“I’ve got some staff that are very upset,” said Huntertown Elementary Principal Elaine Kaiser on Friday. “I think ‘angry’ is a really apt word.

They felt manipulated and blindsided” by a 291-page bill that was given final passage by the Senate before being made available to the public.

Attaching the legislation to a bill dealing with sewer system regulations and voting to pass the measure at the 11th hour made teachers feel “undervalued,” added Kaiser, who described the mood at Huntertown on Friday as “very quiet and somber.”

Senate Bill 151 proposes little change to the pension plans of current teachers, who will receive a defined-benefits pension.

New teachers, however, will move to a cash-balance plan, which means they will receive a less-generous pension. Also, new teachers would not have the protection of an inviolable contract (like current teachers) and their retirement age would increase to 65 with five years of service or to a rule of 87 (when an employee’s age and years of service equals 87).

“I don’t know that I’ve been more disappointed in a process,” Woodford County schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins said.

He described pension reform as one of the most important pieces of legislation in terms of the number of people affected by legislative action. “And it went through a committee in both chambers in about six hours. I just don’t know how anybody can look at that say, ‘That’s the right way to handle things, that’s the right way to do things.’ It’s just disappointing to see our elected officials do it that way.”

Hawkins said most of the state’s savings to reduce an unfunded liability in its teacher retirement system will be accomplished by passing along costs to local school districts. “So I don’t know how they can make an argument that they value public education when that’s the end product,” he added.

Depending on the financial hit taken by public education if lawmakers approve a budget that transfers pension costs to local school districts, Back predicted “there are numerous districts in Eastern Kentucky where schools are going to close their doors because they’re going to file bankruptcy.”

If that happens, Back said thousands upon thousands of students in Kentucky will not have a public school to get an education.

“The bottom line is our kids are going to pay,” said Back, who pointed out that Kentucky’s public school teachers already contribute 13 percent of their pay toward the pension system and another 3 percent of their pay to fund their retirement health insurance plans.

Ultimately, Back said Bevin wants to gain support for charter schools by destroying Kentucky’s public education system.

“The general public has no idea what an educator does, what a teacher does,” said Back. “…The hours are endless. We’re never off the job. It is around the clock … It’s the only way to do the job the way the job needs to be done.

“…We’ve always known that the salaries are not going to be great. But the tradeoff has always been that we were promised a future with health insurance and a fully-funded, defined-benefits package with our pension.”

With the proposed changes to the pension plans, Back said future teachers “will choose other professions, leave the state. We’re not going to get the best and the brightest…”

Kaiser and Hawkins shared her concerns.

“My fear is that even people who really love children and want to do something with children – they’ll either go to another state or they’ll find another avenue to work with kids,” said Kaiser. She said being a classroom teacher gets tougher every year, so it will be more difficult to attract new teachers to the profession if they are not going to receive the quality retirement benefits currently provided to educators.

“The system that they set up moving forward, I think really will be damaging to public education,” said Hawkins. “I think it will make it more difficult to recruit and retain quality people. I think it shows a lack of commitment on the legislature’s part to public education.”

Several public school districts in Kentucky closed last Friday and again Monday (if they weren’t on spring break) because numerous teachers were absent so they could voice their displeasure with the pension bill.

Woodford County public schools were open and classes were held with limited teacher shortages, according to Hawkins. He said having “Arts Day” at two elementary schools (Huntertown and Southside) helped alleviate staffing issues and allowed the district to manage its teacher absences.

“Overall, it didn’t affect us a lot because we had coverage,” said Kaiser, who reported that six of her teachers were absent on Friday.

“There were a lot of kids who needed us today because we provided hot meals for them and we sent some of those children home with food in their backpacks so that they have food to sustain them through spring break,” she added.

“So we needed to have school today and we needed to have school for a lot of kids.”

With Woodford County Public Schools not in session this week because of spring break, Hawkins said he’s confident conversations will occur on how to handle issues related to Kentucky’s teacher retirement system moving forward.

“That’s what I struggle with the most,” said Hawkins of the pension plan, “how do you (as state lawmakers) look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘What we did, was right by people.’”

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