A bill to slash retirement funds prompts teacher ‘walk-ins’ across Kentucky

Rockcastle County High School teachers rally against SB 1 in Mt. Vernon, KY on March 8, 2018. (Credit: Debbie Coleman, Twitter, @hatfieldcoleman)

In a move that could evolve into a statewide strike, hundreds of teachers from dozens of schools across Kentucky participated in “walk-ins” Thursday to protest a Senate bill that would slash teacher retirement benefits.

The measure, Senate Bill 1, would cut retired teachers’ yearly cost-of-living raises from 1.5 percent to 1 percent — an attempt to address the state’s poor pension system. The decrease would remain in effect until the Kentucky Teacher’s Retirement System is 90 percent funded and, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, it is expected to result in “$65,019 in lost income for a teacher making an average salary who retires at 59 and lives until they’re 83.”

A Senate committee approved the bill Wednesday, as protesters shouted “Vote them out!, according to LEX 18 News. The legislation now moves to the Senate floor.  

Teachers gathered outside several schools, then walked into the buildings and rallied against the proposal. Some teachers also organized protests after school and a rally at the state capitol is planned for next Monday.

At nearly $40 billion in debt, Kentucky has one of the worst funded pensions in the country. Gov. Matt Bevin (R) has promised to resolve the crisis, but his often hostile rhetoric has been criticized by teachers, who feel targeted by his proposals. In an interview with WKYX radio on Thursday, Bevin said “the idea that people in retirement would rather get every cent they can get now with no guarantee the checks will keep coming for them or those still working is, frankly, selfish.”

“The reality is, I’m saving the pension system,” Bevin said Wednesday, according to the Herald Leader. “If they are upset about it, it’s either they are ill-informed or willfully blind … I think the vast majority of teachers are none of the above. They are very aware of the fact that they want the pension. Their leadership has their reason for fomenting things. God bless them. But I’m still going to save the pension whether they like it or not.”

Teachers have urged lawmakers to seek other sources of funding for the pension instead of cutting benefits.

“[Gov. Bevin is] not listening to our teachers who went to the Capitol. He’s just not listening, so we need to make him listen,” science teacher Suzanne Sadler said, according to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear sent a letter to legislators earlier this week arguing that SB 1 is unlawful because it violates the state’s inviolable contract with public employees, which protects the retirement benefits of public employees, like teachers, social workers, and law enforcement officers, from being reduced or altered. In a video posted to Facebook on Tuesday, Beshear said the measure would not hold up in court.

The Kentucky “walk-ins” are particularly significant given the recent victory for West Virginia teachers, who after going on strike for nine school days, reached a deal with state lawmakers Tuesday that grants a 5 percent pay raise to all state employees, including teachers. Similarly, teachers in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Jersey City are considering a strike over pay raises.