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Latest Pension Push Has Kentucky Teachers Seeing Red... Again

Josh James
Alayna Harris from Jefferson County raises her fist outside the Kentucky Capitol Annex on February 28, 2019.

Parking lots are packed. An overflow line hundreds strong snakes into the Kentucky Capitol Annex. Crimson-clad visitors pass the time with a round of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It." That was the scene in Frankfort Thursday, as a new push to rework the board overseeing teacher pensions reignited a highly-charged debate. 

"They're up to shenanigans," says Nema Brewer, an organizer with the grassroots 120 Strong movement birthed during last year's massive pension protests.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
A packed committee room awaits Kentucky lawmakers on February 29, 2019.

She's one of many who feel uneasy about House Bill 525, a measure that would alter the size and nominating process of the Kentucky Teacher's Retirement System board. For Brewer, the bill is part of what she describes as an ongoing "power grab" by the Bevin administration.

"It's not about this bill. What it's about is taking a stand finally against them chip, chip, chipping away and trying everything they can do to get their grubby hands on our pensions," the Fayette County schools employee says.

Governor Matt Bevin has pushed for full funding of the Teachers Retirement System and structural changes he says are necessary to "stop the bleeding" in the state's pension system, which is at least $37 billion in the hole. 

At the core of Thursday's confrontation was the Kentucky Education Association and how much control the group exercises over the nominating process for members of the pension board. Currently, the KTRS board is comprised of 11 members — 7 of which are nominated by system members, whittled down to two candidates by the KEA, and voted on by all. Yet the association only represents around 43,000 active and retired teachers, less than half of the total number of educators covered under the system.

Representative Ken Upchurch says that's a problem.

"I have heard over and over again that educators want more authority and oversight over their own retirement, particularly the KTRS," he told colleagues on the House State Government Committee. "This legislation would do exactly that. Which leaves me wondering why an organization that says they represent the best interests of educators has come out against it."

Credit Josh James / WUKY
Representative Ken Upchurch (R) presents House Bill 525 before a House committee on February 28, 2019.

The Monticello Republican began his testimony by apologizing to the districts where classes were cancelled Thursday, as teachers in Fayette County and elsewhere mounted a "sickout."

HB 525 would grow the board to 13 members, but dial back KEA's influence over the selection process as other groups gain nominating privileges. They include: the Kentucky School Boards Association, the Jefferson County Teachers' Association, the Kentucky Association of Professional Educators, the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents and the Kentucky Society of Certified Accountants. The latest version of the bill also tacks on two new members, a retired teacher and a second gubernatorial appointee. 

"What this bill seeks to do is to spread that out across all the stakeholders and give all educators a say in who their elected representation is on that board," Upchurch argued.

Outside, Madison County elementary school teacher Amanda Miller wasn't buying it.

"It's worked for 78 years and our pension is one of the most well-funded and well taken-care-of in the state, so I'm not really sure what the motive is to try to change things," she said. "If it's not broke, don't fix it."

That message was echoed by KEA President Stephanie Winkler, who testified in defense of the current system. The bill, she said, doesn't "make things better, nor does it solve a problem."

Details of the bill, and the committee substitute which had not previously been made public, caused some handwringing on the committee, but lawmakers ultimately decided to move the measure to the full House of Representatives for further consideration.

The legislature has just nine days left to pass bills in the 30-day session.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.