By PARKER FRANKLIN • firstname.lastname@example.org
FRANKFORT – A group of local retired and current teachers made their way to Frankfort this week to protest what they’re calling attacks on educators, including issues with Kentucky’s struggling pension system and the state budget.
Calloway County Retired Teachers Association President Marshall Ward was part of that group. He said he protested for a handful of reasons.
“Number one, teachers as a group have been blasted by the governor for the last six months, in terms of us being ‘selfish and unpatriotic’ and those kinds of things,” Ward said, recounting a public interview Bevin took part in last month. “We’re not going to take that anymore. It’s unprofessional and un-American to attack a group of teachers.”
Ward said the group also made the trip to protest budget threats to education, including teacher pensions.
The Kentucky legislature passed tax reform and budget bills earlier this week. While educators are getting some of what they lobbied for, including the removal of some public education funding cuts and untouched cost-of-living adjustments for retired teachers, there are still sticking points.
One of those, Ward said, is how the pension bill that passed was handled. According to media reports, much of its language was hidden in an unrelated bill about sewage services.
“We were very concerned that this secret, transparent process wasn’t democratic,” Ward said.
He said another major issue is a new hybrid pension plan that new hires will be subject to. The “hybrid cash-balance retirement plan” combines elements of a pension plan with investment options typically found in a 401(k) plan.
“It’s a good compromise, I have no problem with that plan. But what’s missing from that is called the inviolable contract,” Ward said. “Legislators down the road can completely change that later on. It’s not guaranteed. What are you going to do if the pension changes and it’s not something you can live on when you retire?”
He added that while retired educators are happy that COLAs are untouched for now, there were other reasons they were protesting.
“Many retired teachers aren’t looking just for themselves, but as to the future of the profession,” Ward said. “What is this going to look like 10, 15, 20 years down the road if you force the new hires to have a pension plan that is not guaranteed?”
With a pension plan that isn’t set in stone, Ward said, attracting quality teachers becomes difficult.
“If you don’t fund your educational programs, you’re going to have a shortage of teachers, inadequate materials for students to work with, and the people who are here with young children may decide to leave,” he said.
“Teaching is more than somebody walking into a classroom,” Ward continued. “It’s about the process of inculcating values, preparing students for life, for employment and for being a good citizen. If you don’t attract some of the best and brightest in your community to do that job in the classroom, to be support staff, principals and superintendents, then your school systems are going to fail in their mission.”
Southwest Calloway Elementary School teacher Gina Crider – who noted her school is a nationally-recognized Blue Ribbon School – also made the trip to Frankfort this week. One of her main concerns is teachers and social security, or more specifically, how Kentucky teachers are not eligible to draw social security benefits.
There are two laws Crider is talking about: WEP and GPO, short for windfall elimination provision and government pension offset.
According to the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet, those laws are “designed to resolve inequities in the law that had, in the past, permitted some government employees to collect more in social security benefits than was originally intended,” according to its website.
“What it does, is for people like me who worked in the private sector – I worked there for 20 years – after a few years, it takes two-thirds off the top of my earned social security that I already paid into, and then I’ll get some remaining portion of that, depending on how long I worked,” Crider said.
Crider gave another example. If one half of a married couple makes $20,000 annually and the other person makes $60,000 while drawing social security, and one dies, the survivor gets the larger of the two.
“That’s not true for teachers,” she said. “Just because our spouses marry teachers, their social security often goes back into the pool (if they die).”
Add in the new hybrid plan, and it gets even more complicated.
“We pre-fund our retirement far more than the private sector,” Crider said. “We know that going into it, but with the new system, it’s just going to be so hard to attract new teachers, and that’s our concern. At the end of the day, we just want to continue quality education in Kentucky. We want it to be a priority.”
Both Crider and Ward offered sentiments that issues like this won’t go away anytime soon.
“I wonder at which point we decided as a state that using our tax dollars to attract quality public servants became a bad thing. That is just hard to fathom,” Crider said.
“There was political chanting. ‘We will remember in November,’” Ward said, referring to upcoming elections.
He added that Gov. Matt Bevin does have the option to line-item veto any part of the pension and budget bills before they’re signed into law. While the governor hasn’t publicly stated he’d do so, Ward said he isn’t optimistic.
“I would almost guarantee it (Bevin issuing line-item vetoes) he said.