FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Hundreds of Kentucky teachers flexed their political muscle with a rally Wednesday outside the state Capitol, seeking to bury a proposed pension overhaul and win more state education funding from lawmakers.
Braving a late-season snow, about 2,000 teachers and other school employees marched from the Kentucky Education Association headquarters to the Capitol, chanting, "We'll Remember in November" — an election-year warning against efforts to reduce their retirement benefits. Kentucky has one of the worst-funded public pension systems in the country and efforts to achieve reform are being closely watched nationwide by teachers and other public workers in other states.
The show of force by Kentucky teachers comes amid growing unrest among public educators nationwide, led by thousands of West Virginia teachers who walked off the job and swarmed their Capitol for nine days earlier this year to secure a 5 percent pay raise.
Kentucky teachers are not fighting for a pay raise but are loudly calling on the Republican-led legislature not to touch their retirement benefits. The state is at least $41 billion short of what it needs to pay the pension fund over the next 30 years. State officials say the pension bill would save taxpayers about $3.2 billion over the next 20 years and stabilize the situation.
The teachers marched around the Capitol and then rallied in front of the statehouse, ratcheting up pressure on lawmakers in the final days of their legislative session.
"It is important to know that you are winning this debate," House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, told them. "It is important to know that you have to stay in this debate and in this game 'til the very end."
Huddled together in the cold, teachers waved signs and chanted "Find funding first," urging lawmakers to pass revenue enhancements to support public pensions.
Officials in at least seven eastern Kentucky districts announced school cancellations Wednesday so teachers could attend. The teachers were joined by employees from other districts, which either sent delegations or were closed due to the snow.
The rally comes at a pivotal time, with lawmakers negotiating a new two-year state budget and as Republican Gov. Matt Bevin tries to revive the pension bill, which stalled in the state Senate earlier this month amid another noisy rally by teachers.
"I've never seen teachers this united over a single issue," said Tim Giles, a chemistry teacher in central Kentucky. "We're talking about our standard of living for the rest of our lives."
Nina McCoy, a retired biology teacher from Martin County, said teachers were "backed against the wall" in the pension debate and needed to keep up pressure on lawmakers.
"I think they'll sneak around and do anything they can ... if we look the other way," she said.
Teachers said they are upset by proposals that would achieve savings mostly from temporary cuts to the annual cost-of-living raises for retired teachers. The raises would be restored once the system is 90 percent funded. Currently, the system is 56 percent funded.
Teachers also criticized parts of the education budget passed Tuesday by the state Senate, saying it would spend less on preschool programs, textbooks and teacher development.
"We need to take our legislators to school," said one teacher, Jessica Hiler. "It is our job to school them on what is wrong with this budget."
The pension debate has strained relations between teachers and the state's GOP governor. Bevin's sales pitch for an overhaul angered many teachers, who bristled at his recent remark that teachers opposing pension changes were "ignorant" and "throwing a temper tantrum."
Bevin has appeared to tone down his rhetoric since, saying in a weekend message that he had "tremendous respect" for teachers even as he continued to push for change.
But in radio interview Tuesday, Bevin warned that the pension plan is at risk of collapse without changes. "I tell the people that are protesting, if you get what you wish for, you're going to wish you hadn't asked for it," he told radio station Talk 104.1 in Bowling Green.
Bevin called on supporters of the pension bill to speak up. He said lawmakers now are "hearing only from the angry people who want to destroy what's good for this state."
Joanne Kidwell, a middle school teacher in Carter County, said Bevin deserves credit for advocating greatly increased state funding to support the pension plans.
But in doing so, the governor has been insulting to teachers and damaged his own political standing if he decides to seek re-election next year, said Kidwell, a Republican.
"His rhetoric has been very damaging," she said. "I don't think he needs to worry about having a second term."