Several Kentucky school districts close for Capitol rally

Published 7:13 am Wednesday, March 21, 2018

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky teachers plan to ramp up their rallies in support of education funding and to preserve their retirement benefits, with more than a half-dozen school districts calling off classes Wednesday to allow their employees to converge on the state Capitol.

The latest rally comes at a crucial time as lawmakers prepare for final negotiations on a new state budget, and as Republican Gov. Matt Bevin tries to revive a stalled bill to overhaul the state’s public pension plans. Bevin’s sales pitch angered many teachers, who bristled at his recent remark that teachers opposing pension changes were “ignorant” and “throwing a temper tantrum.”

Bevin has toned down his rhetoric since, saying in a weekend message that he had “tremendous respect” for teachers even as he continued to push for the pension overhaul.

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Hundreds of teachers rallied at the Capitol earlier this month as the GOP-led Senate decided not to vote on the pension bill. Wednesday’s rally could be bigger, if a late-season storm threatening 3 to 4 inches of snow doesn’t interfere. The showdown comes amid growing unrest among public educators nationwide, led by thousands of West Virginia teachers who walked off the job and swarmed their Capitol for nine days earlier this year to secure a 5 percent pay raise.

Kentucky teachers are not fighting for a pay raise but are asking lawmakers not to change their retirement benefits. The state is at least $41 billion short of what it needs to pay the pension fund over the next 30 years. State officials say the pension bill would save taxpayers about $3.2 billion over the next 20 years and stabilize the situation. But most of that savings would come from temporary cuts to the annual cost-of-living raises for retired teachers. The raises would be restored once the system is 90 percent funded. Currently, the system is 56 percent funded.

Martin County schools Superintendent Larry James said he planned to make the trip with his teachers and staff. The rally, he said, is “the right thing to do.”

“They’re pretty fired up,” James said of the teachers. “It’s like changing the rules in the middle of the game — it’s how the vast majority feel.”

More than a half-dozen school districts in eastern Kentucky postponed classes Wednesday to enable teachers and staff to attend the rally. Many will arrive in school buses.

“We are united and strong and we’re not going to back down,” said Patricia Lea Collins, the Head Start and preschool director for the Pike County school system.

Other districts closing for Wednesday’s rally included the Lawrence, Martin, Carter and Floyd county districts, along with Ashland Independent and Fairview Independent school districts in Ashland. Several other districts planned to send delegations while keeping school open.

Collins predicted that 350 to 450 people — including teachers, staff and bus drivers— would attend from Pike County.

“They wanted a chance to come down here and show that Pike County is not going to lay down for this nonsense from this governor and these legislators,” she said.

Carter County Superintendent Ronnie Dotson said he supported his teachers and staff.

“I certainly advocate on behalf of anyone that is standing up for what they believe in, and in this case for the benefits that we’ve all worked hard for,” he said.

At Wednesday’s rally, teachers also plan to speak up for funding for public education.

The GOP-led Kentucky House recently voted to tax opioid prescription painkillers to help pay for public schools. Supporters said that tax, plus a higher tax on cigarettes, would generate enough extra money for the state to increase its per-pupil funding for public schools to more than $4,000 for the first time ever. And it would restore Bevin’s $127 million cut for public school buses.

The Senate balked at those tax hikes. A Senate panel approved a budget draft Wednesday that would restore cuts for public school transportation, and would result in slightly lower per-pupil school funding compared to the House version, though it would still be close to $4,000.