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Kentucky teachers rally as rebellion grows

Covington schools remain closed Tuesday
Posted at 1:57 PM, Apr 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-03 07:48:02-04

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- The state Capitol in Kentucky filled with teachers protesting possible budget cuts and pension changes Monday, the latest in a spreading rebellion in some Republican-led states over education funding.

Those cuts may not come to pass, after lawmakers approved a $480 million tax increase. Gov. Matt Bevin signaled he opposes the bill, leaving its fate -- and the future of school spending -- uncertain. 

At least six Northern Kentucky school districts were closed Monday as teachers headed en masse to Frankfort. There, they and other school employees gathered outside the Kentucky Education Association a couple of blocks from the Capitol, chanting "Stop the war on public education" and held signs that say "We've Had Enough." Covington schools will remain closed Tuesday due to high teacher absenteeism, the district announced.

"We're madder than hornets, and the hornets are swarming today," said Claudette Green, a retired teacher and principal.

MORE PHOTOS: Thousands of teachers rally in Frankfort

They also crammed into the Capitol, filling the Rotunda and hallways near the House and Senate chambers and chanting, "We won't back down." Outside Northern Kentucky, schools across the state were closed, due either to spring break or to allow teachers and other school employees to attend.

Budget negotiators unveiled a spending plan Monday that includes increased spending for the main funding formula for K-12 schools and restored money for school buses that the state's Republican governor had proposed eliminating. The additional education spending would be paid for by a 6 percent sales tax on a host of services that had previously been tax-free. The spending and taxing proposals cleared the Senate and House on Monday.

In the case of a veto from Bevin, lawmakers would have a chance to override him.

About 50 people, a mix of teachers, parents and students, protested at Burlington Pike and Mall Road in Florence. They're worried Northern Kentucky districts could lose $30 million under Bevin's proposal.

They carried signs and urged drivers to honk in support. Many did.

"Our kids are the future, and if we don't do something about what's going on right now in Frankfort, then we could potentially lose programs that will impact our kids' futures, said Angela Turnnick, Holmes High School assistant principal.

Boone County Schools would lose $6.1 million, Superintendent Randy Poe said. The district has already issued pink slips.

"We were having to decrease 110 teachers, bus drivers, classified association and administration across the board," Poe said.

That could change under a more favorable budget. 

Lesley Buckner, a language arts teacher from Berea, was reluctant to give lawmakers much credit.

"We're sending a message," she said. "If we continue to stay united, they cannot turn away from us, they cannot turn their backs on us."

The rally happened after hundreds of teachers called in sick Friday to protest last-minute changes to their pension system. Teachers have rallied several times during Kentucky's legislative session to protest the pension bill, but Monday was by far their biggest event.

Kentucky's Republican lawmakers passed a pension overhaul Thursday that preserves benefits for most workers but cuts them for new teachers. The move was done in response to one of the worst-funded teacher retirement systems in the country at 56 percent and in defiance of a powerful teachers union that vowed political retribution. Opponents objected that the pension changes were inserted into an unrelated bill without a chance for public input, and worry that the changes will discourage young people from joining the profession.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has not yet signed the bill, but last week tweeted his support, saying public workers owe "a deep debt of gratitude" to lawmakers who voted to pass it.

During Monday's rally, some teachers, angry at lawmakers who supported the bill, chanted "Vote them out."

"You want good teachers for your kids in the future, where they going to come from? Who in their right mind would want to go into education today with the things that are going on down here in Frankfort?" said Walt Reinhart, a retired teacher from Alexandria.

Kristen Neidhardt, who teaches first grade at White's Tower Elementary School in Kenton County, said she got into education for the children, not to become rich and famous.

"I don't want to look in their eyes and say, 'I'm sorry we can't provide for you. I'm sorry you can't have the things that you need to learn,'" she said.

Melissa Wash, a first-grade teacher form Gallatin County who has been teaching for 19 years, said she voted for Bevin, but now plans to become a Democrat. To the lawmakers who voted for the pension overhaul, she said: "You better not count on another year in office."

The demonstrations were inspired by West Virginia, where teachers walked out for nine days earlier this year and won a 5 percent increase in pay.

"Their success has shown us that collective activity can work," Kentucky teacher Corey Sayre said of the West Virginia walkout.

With schools closed, Kenton County had plans to serve lunch to students who qualify. Not many took that opportunity at Turkey Foot Middle School, but the district wanted to be ready just in case.

"It's to make sure that kids have access to food after a weekend and an unexpected day off," Assistant Superintendent Kim Banta said.

In Oklahoma, Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation last week granting teachers pay raises of about $6,100, or 15 to 18 percent. But some educators say that isn't good enough and walked out.

"If I didn't have a second job, I'd be on food stamps," said Rae Lovelace, a single mom and a third-grade teacher at Leedey Public Schools in northwest Oklahoma who works 30 to 40 hours a week at a second job teaching online courses for a charter school.

Many Oklahoma schools, including the three largest districts, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Edmond, are closed Monday to honor the walkout. Some schools are offering free meals to students aged 18 or younger while various churches, faith organizations and charitable agencies are providing free day-care services. Spring break was last week in many Oklahoma districts.

Oklahoma ranks 47th among states and the District of Columbia in public school revenue per student, nearly $3,000 below the national average, while its average teacher salary of $45,276 ranked 49th before the latest raises, according to the most recent statistics from the National Education Association.