Multiple school systems in Kentucky were forced to close Friday, as teacher absences soared amid growing protest over legislation that educators say would strike a blow to pension plans.
Teachers from across the state descended on the capitol in Frankfort, outraged about what they described as a surprise move to pass legislation their union said Friday would mean existing employees pay more for pension benefits and new hires don’t get the same plan that previous generations relied on.
The protesters hung a sprawling banner from a capitol balcony — “Kentucky deserves better” — as hundreds converged, according to the Louisville Courier Journal. A rally is planned for Monday, when lawmakers return to the Capitol and most teachers are on spring break, union officials said.
The action in Kentucky came as the latest flash point over pay and benefits for the nation’s teachers. In West Virginia, educators closed schools for nine days as they held out for a 5 percent raise, which they won for teachers and all state workers in March.
More recently Arizona teachers, among the nation’s lowest-paid, threatened to strike over raises and funding cuts to school programs. Oklahoma teachers are planning a walkout Monday if they don’t get what they want before then.
In Kentucky, the teacher absences touched off school closings in the state’s largest school systems, in Louisville and Lexington. School officials in Lexington said more than one-third of school employees did not show up Friday, and they did not have enough substitutes to compensate.
The Courier Journal found more than 20 counties announcing school closures Friday, as tensions flared. Kentucky has 173 school systems, located in 120 counties.
The state teachers’ union, the Kentucky Education Association, with a membership of 45,000, had not called on teachers to skip the workday but issued a sharply worded statement about the legislative action.
“This kind of backroom dealing is shameful,” the statement said. “Pitting government interests against the interests of current and future educators is cowardly.”
John Darnell, a principal in Bellevue, Ky., just south of Cincinnati, said his schools were open Friday but “there is no wrong decision for teachers today,” calling the legislation “a slap in the face.”
“Our entire public education system is under attack,” Darnell said.
Union officials said the pension bill had all but died earlier in March and was suddenly revived Thursday as Republican lawmakers attached it to another bill that addressed wastewater services, not teacher pensions.
They likened the bill’s sudden resurgence to a classic “bait and switch” that left no time for public vetting. The union first got a look at the 291-document after the bill passed.
Republican lawmakers described the measure — aimed at helping to fix the state’s broken pension system — as a compromise that would address concerns raised by a previous bill, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Both the House and Senate passed the bill, which goes to Gov. Matt Bevin (R).
Bevin signaled his support, tweeting: “Tonight 49 members of the Kentucky House and 22 members of the Kentucky Senate voted not to keep kicking the pension problem down the road. Anyone who will receive a retirement check in the years ahead owes a deep debt of gratitude to these 71 men & women who did the right thing.”