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Angry teachers confront lawmakers in Frankfort over budget cuts, pension overhaul

Some Northern Kentucky districts closed
Superintendent: Campbell Co. Schools closed
Posted at 5:50 AM, Mar 30, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-03 07:46:11-04

Correction: A prior version of this story misspelled state Rep. Dennis Keene's last name. WCPO regrets this error.

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Teachers are rallying at the Capitol Monday morning for more education funding and protesting after state lawmakers rushed through a pension overhaul last week.

Four buses filled with teachers left Dixie Heights High School at 6:30 a.m. as supporters yelled and waved signs that read “Teach Frankfort to pay their debt!” 

At least six Northern Kentucky school districts were closed Monday as teachers headed en masse to Frankfort. 

Covington Independent, Ludlow Independent, Boone County, Kenton County, Augusta Independent and Lewis County schools were all closed Monday due to the teacher absences. 

Teachers from Campbell County Schools, which is on spring break, are also going to Frankfort. They're likely to be joined by others from Carroll, Gallatin, Grant, Mason and Owen, which are also on break.

Other teachers are coming from around the state

It's the final day of the executive session and lawmakers anticipated the clash over the state budget to resume first thing in the morning. Rep. Dennis Keene (D-Wilder, 67th District) tweeted this Sunday:

Meanwhile, some Boone County teachers spent part of their Easter Sunday preparing bag lunches to be distributed to students who won't be in school Monday. Lunch is being served at Simon Kenton High School, Turkey Foot Middle School and Holmes High School Monday. 

The teachers said Gov. Matt Bevin's budget would make painfully deep cuts to the classroom and extracurricular activities. 

"What are you going to lose?" said retired teacher Gail MacAdams. "You're going to lose things like textbooks, things like special services for any of the special ed students. Sporting things."

"Boone County would lose roughly four teachers a building if the budget cuts go through the way they're written," said special ed teacher Dana Wilde. "That's why we're going down to Frankfort."

Melissa Raper of the Family Resource Center said the budget would cut $10 million from centers around the state.

"If the kids don't have the things they need to be able to sit in their chairs, learn and listen to the teachers, it's kind of useless," Raper said.

Though pension changes have dominated news coverage, Boone County Superintendent Randy Poe said Bevin's budget would mean a $6.1 million hit to Boone County schools, leading to "immediate" layoffs of up to 110 teachers.

"Drastic times call for drastic action," Poe said in a letter to parents last week explaining he called off classes to let teachers go to Frankfort. "Although closing school is the last thing anyone wants to do, one of the reasons for this decision to close school is because educators feel one of their main responsibilities is to advocate for the children of the Commonwealth."

Teachers hope the state can come up with new ways to bring in revenue, but lawmakers haven't said where that money would come from. The House spending plan included a cigarette and a new prescription opioid tax, but the Senate rejected that plan.

Kentucky lawmakers defied angry educators and passed a pension overhaul Thursday night as teachers cried, "Shame on you!" The law preserves benefits for current retirees and most benefits for current workers, but sick days would be capped after this year and will not be applied toward retirement. Some teachers would also have to increase the amount they pay to fund retiree health.

However, future teachers would not be guaranteed a set pension when they retire, and would instead use a hybrid 401(k) plan that requires them to contribute more.

"What this will do is cause fewer and fewer people to teach in Kentucky, and in our case they'll go to Ohio or take up another profession," Keene said. "So we will have a harder time recruiting teachers to teach in our classrooms."

Kentucky police officers and firefighters also stand to lose some benefits under the bill, according to Keene.

Kentucky's pension system is among the worst-funded in the country, according to the Associated Press. They reported that the state is at least $41 billion short of the money it needs to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years.

Proponents of the bill, like Republican Sen. Wil Schroder, said it's necessary for Kentucky's long-term financial success.

"A lot of people realized that something had to be done," he said. "Past General Assemblies failed to take action at all, and the problem only got worse."

Covington spokesperson Deb Vance said 180 of 271 teachers called to say they're taking a personal day on Monday. The day will have to be made up later, she said.

Teachers have been vocal opponents to the bill, already rallying in Frankfort several times and causing it to be delayed previously. 

The following Northern Kentucky schools were closed Friday due to excessive staff absences:

  • Campbell County Schools
  • Carroll County Schools
  • Dayton Independent Schools

Dayton teachers protested Friday morning along Sixth Avenue. Watch video from Reporter Ally Kraemer in the player below.

Karen Fuchs has been teaching 22 years and works at Dayton's Lincoln Elementary. On Friday morning, she was protesting pension cuts but also budget cuts that harm students.

"When you cut the budget, a lot goes along with that. Textbooks get cut. The number of teachers we have gets cut and that is huge -- class size is huge," Fuchs said. "Teachers don't just teach anymore. Our role has expanded to parent at times, counselor at times, caregiver at times, so there's a lot that goes into it. As you can see, everyone out here, we're here for our kids."

When asked why schools would be closed, Campbell County Schools Superintendent David Rust said he was not certain but said he’s “sure this has to do with the bill passage in Frankfort.”

Rust also said most of the absences came in Thursday night after Fayette County and several other districts in the state decided to close.

It was business as usual at Erlanger-Elsmere schools Friday. Teachers showed up for work, saying they didn't want to let their students down. But some said they planned to rally in Frankfort Monday during their spring break.

"We wanted to show our students that, no matter what, we are here for them, even if it is causing harm to their teachers," teacher Nikki Nussbaum said.

Grant County High School also did not close, but 26 teachers called in sick, according to public information officer Nancy Howe. Parents received an automated voicemail from Grant County Schools on Friday morning advising them that their children would not receive an unexcused absence should parents choose to keep them home out of safety concerns with that many teachers absent.

"By the time we knew we had that number of people out, we had to consider how to hold school safely. If we say we're having school, we try to have it," Howe said.

She declined to speculate on whether Thursday's pension overhaul had anything to do with the teacher absences.

Reporters Breanna Molloy, Ashley Zilka and Ally Kraemer and Web Editor Austin Fast contributed to this report.