Teaching Profession

The Kentucky ‘Pension Flu’ Has Hit Teachers Once Again

By Madeline Will — February 28, 2019 3 min read
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The “pension flu” is coming around again—thousands of Kentucky teachers called out sick on Thursday to protest legislation, forcing at least eight school districts to close.

Teachers are protesting a bill that would restructure the board that oversees the state’s teacher pension system. Currently, the board has seven trustees who are elected by members of the pension system from a group of nominees selected by the Kentucky Education Association, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. The version of the bill released Thursday would up the number of elected board members to eight, and change how that nomination process works.

The Kentucky Education Association would be in charge of two of the positions (a current educator and a retired educator), and the rest of the nominations would be filled by other education-related groups, including the Jefferson County Teachers’ Association, the Kentucky Association of Professional Educators, and professional groups for school board members, school administrators, superintendents, and retired teachers.

The state’s two largest school districts—Jefferson and Fayette Counties—are among the districts forced to close because of a lack of substitutes to cover the number of teacher absences.

Last year, Kentucky teachers rallied at the state Capitol on three separate occasions to protest changes to the state’s retirement plan. Schools were forced to close then, too. The sickout this year was called for by the grassroots group KY 120 United, which led the protests last year.

“We show up every day in the classroom with a lot of passion, but sadly passion will not substitute for our pension or our paycheck. It has been crystal clear for over a year that public education, teachers, and our public pensions are under attack. Enough is enough,” KY 120 United posted. “This isn’t about just one bill but a series of events that have transpired over the past year.”

Kentucky’s pension system is one of the worst-funded in the nation, and fixing it has been a priority for lawmakers. Last year, they moved new teachers to a “cash-balance” plan, which is a hybrid of a traditional defined-benefit pension and the kind of 401(K) retirement savings plan common in the private sector. That will help ensure that the state does not accrue additional unfunded liabilities. In addition, school districts are now expected to contribute 2 percent of teachers’ salaries to their pension plans, on top of the contribution from the commonwealth.

See also: Costly Pension Plans Are Fanning the Flames of Teacher Unrest

While the legislation that ultimately passed did not include any significant changes to current teachers or retirees’ benefit plans, it still angered many teachers, who are now watching legislators very closely. The Kentucky Education Association has called the bill to restructure the pension system’s board a “retaliatory effort” for last year’s protests.

Although the state teachers’ union did not sanction the sickout, it posted on Twitter a quote from community organizer Fannie Lou Hamer: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Kentucky was part of a rash of widespread teacher activism last year that has continued into 2019 as well. In addition to big-city teacher strikes in Denver, Los Angeles, and now Oakland, Calif., West Virginia teachers repeated their activism last year with another two-day strike this month over a school choice bill.

In Kentucky, state Rep. Travis Brenda, a high school math teacher who was elected to the legislature as a Republican last year, posted on Twitter that the bill that sparked the protests is currently in its first draft. The “updates that are in the works,” he said, “will be dramatically better.”

This post was updated on 3/1 to reflect the current language of the bill.

Image: Kristin Walker, a Jefferson County teacher, sits in a hearing room waiting to protest the passage of a bill that would change how individuals are nominated to the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System’s board of trustees. —Bryan Woolston/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.