Teachers rally in Frankfort as Bevin veto overturned

Educators from across Kentucky again converged on the state capital to protest legislation changing the way teachers' pensions work

click to enlarge Kentucky teachers protest in Frankfort April 13. - McKenzie Eskridge
McKenzie Eskridge
Kentucky teachers protest in Frankfort April 13.

School was closed in 39 Kentucky districts on April 13 as thousands of teachers returned to Frankfort to protest moves by the Kentucky legislature and Gov. Matt Bevin around funding for education and public employee pensions.

The protests sparked push back, including controversial accusations by Bevin about abuse students may have endured while their schools were closed.

The rallies in Frankfort were the latest in a series of protests that began April 2 in response to the General Assembly’s last-minute passage of Senate Bill 151, the sewage-turned-pension bill that partially privatizes future Kentucky teacher and other public employee pensions. Opponents say it will drive aspiring educators and other public servants away from public schools in the state and push current teachers into early retirement.

Despite public objection, Bevin signed SB 151 into law on April 10.

That sparked a lawsuit filed April 11 by Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, the Kentucky Education Association and Kentucky State Fraternal Order of Police against Bevin, the Kentucky Teachers' Retirement System Board of Trustees and the Kentucky Retirement System.

“As passed, the new SB 151 substantially alters and ultimately reduces the retirement benefits of the over 200,000 active members of the pension systems, including teachers, police officers, and firefighters,” Beshear said in a statement, alleging it violates the public employees’ contracts.

Beshear, along with the KEA and the FOP, contend that the bill violates multiple sections of the state constitution governing the number of times a bill must be read, requirements that bills must be accompanied by fiscal analysis, and broader, more sweeping sections of the constitution governing the limits of governmental power.

Kentucky law mandates that legislators provide three public readings of a bill before it can be voted on. That happened for SB 151 — when it was still just a nine-page sewer bill. After those public readings, lawmakers converted it into hundreds of pages of changes to the state’s pension system.

Some teachers criticize the Beshear suit as too narrow. Teacher Retirement Legal Fund head Randy Wieck says SB 151 drives teacher pension funding down to roughly 32 percent of full funding. Lawmakers dispute that assertion, however, saying that the pension is 54 percent funded.

SB 151 wasn’t the only controversial piece of legislation in play.

Teachers were also showing up at the capital in response to calls from the statewide teachers’ association goading lawmakers to override Bevin’s recent vetoes of House Bills 200 and 366, the state budget and tax reform bills.

Though the legislation has downsides for small businesses, working-class Kentuckians and public universities, the bills are more education-friendly than budget proposals presented by Bevin. HB 200 includes increased spending per student, funding for family resource and youth centers, restored transportation, $17 million toward classroom resources, and an agreement to fully fund the state’s Teachers Retirement System, which hasn’t been at its mandated funding levels in over a decade.

The Republican-led House and Senate swiftly overruled Bevin’s vetoes on April 13 and 14. That vote took place along party lines.

Every Northern Kentucky Democrat voted against the bills. Senator Dennis Keene, a Democrat from Campbell County, said he was not given enough time to read the budget bill before voting on it, but that he knew “that taxes were raised on those who could least afford it while giving tax cuts to the rich” under the legislation.

Not all teachers were appeased by the final budget and tax bills, and while the KEA applauded Congress members’ decision to override Bevin, they publicly acknowledged that “neither bill gives citizens of the Commonwealth everything that our students, their parents, and our communities need. However, both bills provide much needed P-12 funding for the next biennium.”

Bevin had harsh, and some say outlandish, words for teachers taking to the capital, blaming them for sexual assault and abuse of children that he says surely happened while their schools were closed.

“I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them,” Bevin said April 13. “I’m offended by the idea that people so cavalierly and so flippantly disregarded what’s truly best for children.”

Legislators unanimously passed a resolution condemning the comments the following day (April 14).

Bevin responded to the backlash April 15 via video on personal platforms.

“I made some comments about the unintended consequences of schools being shut down…and the result that can come from that,” he said, adding, “I’m sorry for those of you, every single one of you, that has been hurt by things that I’ve said. Let’s work together.”

Teacher protests in Frankfort have had a big impact on local districts. Boone and Kenton counties were on spring break last week, but Grant, Gallatin and Owen county schools closed, along with Erlanger-Elsmere Independent, Bellevue Independent and Newport Independent Schools.

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