Magoffin teachers go to rally in Frankfort

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SALYERSVILLE/STATEWIDE – On the heels of Kentucky legislators passing a wastewater bill that had pension reform language attached to it on the same day that it came up for a vote, Magoffin teachers joined the statewide movement, holding protests at the high school and traveling to Frankfort for a rally held by the Kentucky Education Association. 

Senate Bill 151 was originally introduced in February as a 9-page provision of wastewater services. On Thursday, March 29, just under 300 pages were added to the bill, containing some of the verbiage from the proposed SB 1, which has been stuck in the Senate since early March.

For a brief synopsis of what SB 151 will mean for teachers, see the story “7 things teachers need to know about Kentucky’s surprise pension bill” by Daniel Desrochers from the Lexington Herald-Leader on page A3.

On Friday, like many school districts in the state, Magoffin County Schools had to call off school due to not having enough substitute teachers to cover the number of teachers that had called in. 

Many teachers gathered in front of the Magoffin County High School on Friday morning, and again Friday afternoon, wearing red, holding signs and chanting, “A pension is a promise,” and, “We won’t back down.” 

April Arnett, a reading recovery interventionist at North Magoffin Elementary and KEA member in her 16th year of teaching, told the Independent on Friday, “We were told in Frankfort a couple weeks ago that SB1 was dead, that it wasn’t a major concern anymore and they were more concerned with funding now, but obviously that was not the case. Our representatives told us that they were concerned that they would try to sneak in something at the last minute and that’s pretty much what’s happening here.” 

Theresa Miller, a second-grade teacher at Salyersville Grade School and KEA member in her 32nd year of teaching, said, “This is an egregious injustice to the public school teachers in Kentucky. This bill should have never seen the light of the Congressional floor. It should have died in committee – it should have never come out. And to further insult us, they have tacked it onto the sewage bill, which shows their utter disregard and disdain for the teaching profession. They do not respect us. They consider us willful, disobedient children, instead of educated professionals.”

Arnett further noted, “Teachers make all professions.”

Miller stated about Governor Matt Bevin, “He thinks we’re uninformed, we’re not sophisticated enough to understand the bills, but the thing that is the most insulting is he thinks we are defying him – like we don’t have a right as American citizens to stand up and speak our voice. We’re not defying him, we’re standing up for ourselves.”

As far as how SB 151 affects them personally, Arnett said, “It takes away the guarantee of our retirement. Our pension was a promise, to reiterate the hashtag, but that promise has been taken away with this bill.”

Arnett told the Independent that the recent changes, if signed into law by Bevin, will result in a future teacher shortage.

“There will be a shortage of highly-qualified educators to educate our students and our children and that’s unfair,” Arnett said. “It’s unfair to the kids, it’s unfair to the parents, it’s unfair to everyone as a whole.”

Miller noted that teachers do not pay into social security, the state doesn’t match their retirement like they would if they were paying into social security, and the current and new-coming teachers are looking at uncertainty.

“The new teachers that are going to be in a 401-style pension, and what if it fails?” Miller said. “They don’t have social security backing them. We don’t have social security to fall back on. Who is going to go into a job where when you’re 65, you may not draw anything? We also can’t draw our husbands social security, so what will we do? What will they do? Not only that, but we will be retiring someday. Who is going to be paying into the pension plan that pays us?”

“It’s attacking people’s livelihoods, and that’s not being a public servant,” Arnett said.

On Friday afternoon in a press conference Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler called for a statewide rally in Frankfort for Monday, April 2. 

“Anyone that voted yes to this bill will need to be packing up their office,” Winkler stated during the press conference. 

She asked all teachers in the state, most of whom were already on spring break, to come to Frankfort on Monday to present a united front to the legislators, noting that they will be watching how they proceed in regards to the budget and education.

“We are at a crossroads here and if we go the wrong way, it will be to our Commonwealth’s detriment,” Winkler said.

Magoffin was one of the few districts in the state scheduled to have classes on Monday, but the district called off for the rally on Friday evening after too many teachers called in to be covered by substitutes. 

Magoffin County Schools Superintendent Scott Helton told the Independent approximately 100 Magoffin County employees – certified and classified –  traveled to Frankfort on Monday, joining the estimated 18,000 people that marched to the capitol steps. 

Helton clarified that they did take a school bus to Frankfort, as many school districts did, but the KEA covered the cost of fuel and a KEA teacher drove the bus at no cost, so the Magoffin County School District did not incur any costs for the trip.

Helton said that he fears the SB 151, if signed into law, will hurt the school district in recruiting and maintaining employees. He said they are still dissecting the budget and revenue bills, that passed the House and Senate on Monday, but that are unsure how the three bills will affect Magoffin’s upcoming budget.

He noted that they budget did increase SEEK funding, and included family resource funding, retirees’ health insurance, and transportation, and did not include funding for charter schools. 

About the rally on Monday, Helton said, “It was a show of unity. Everyone was well-behaved and it had to send a message to our legislators. This is not just about pensions – it’s also about funding. It’s not about raises like it was in West Virginia. No one is asking for that here. It’s about equitable funding for schools and pension programs.”

Helton said the district will continue to support teachers and if another statewide rally is called, and if they don’t have enough substitutes to cover the teachers that will be out, they will have to call off school, again.

“We know it’s worrisome to the community. We know it’s a hassle getting babysitters and rearranging schedules when the teachers are not here to have the education process of students, but it’s a trying time for their future. We still are trying to provide the best education for our students, but these are circumstances we’ve not had to deal with before and we don’t know what will happen.”

The school district did offer approximately 500 meals on Monday to students throughout the community.

“We thought with the children off Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it would be a good thing to provide meals for students in the community. It was just something to help our children in case they needed a meal,” Helton said.

The Independent also talked with Representative John Blanton (R-Salyersville), who has taken some flak for the SB 151 votes.

Blanton said the bill passed the House at the objection of himself and other majority caucuses. He noted that people are stating that he voted for a proposed veto on the bill, but the vote was actually in regards to if the chair had ruled appropriately.

“The chair made the proper ruling based on the rules and laws and I wouldn’t vote dishonestly,” Blanton said. “They were saying it wasn’t legal to hear because of the analysis but there is a Supreme Court hearing that made it legal. The question was if it was legal and if the chair was correct and based on the Supreme Court, he was. I could not have stopped the bill and it doesn’t mean that I liked the ruling, but it was correct.”

He said responded to the claims that he was late in the final vote (where he voted against SB 151). 

“People don’t understand the process,” Blanton said. “In what time we had to try to combat in caucus, I tried to get other people to change their votes, and I got three to agree to join us. We were two votes away from stopping it, and I was in constant contact with Eastern Kentucky superintendents and with the KEA the entire time. I was late voting against the bill because I was trying to get the votes. I worked my tail off trying to get this bill changed.”

Blanton said much of what has been stated on social media is incorrect, in what he believes to be politically-motivated lies and misinformation. 

“People are flat-out lying. The KEA is still supporting me and they would not be supporting me if any of that were true. I was at the rally in Frankfort yesterday. We were in caucus and I was fighting to protect the teachers.”

Blanton said they knew the best chance they had to kill the bill was when it came to the floor for a vote, so that was his focus.

“If I say I will do something, I’m going to do it. My wife is a retired teacher and I am a retired trooper, so I have a lot of personal contacts with this,” Blanton said.

Blanton did explain that he voted against the revenue bill because he felt it would raise taxes on the working people and people with lower income, as well as raise taxes on people drawing retirement. 

Despite not agreeing with everything in the bill, he also said he voted for the budget bill because it funded K-12, gave the most amount to SEEK ever, funded transportation, retired teachers’ healthcare, FRYSC, the Robinson’s Scholarship, and fully funded the ARC for teachers and state employee pensions.

As far as the SB 151, which he voted against, Blanton clarified that it doesn’t nothing to current retired teachers. For current teachers, he said it caps sick time that can be used to calculated into their retirement (but it can still be cashed in and paid out). For new teachers, they will be put into a cash-hybrid plan, that has a defined benefit system. He said that system is the same system all state employees already pay into. He said a portion of what the teachers in the cash-hybrid plan pay in will go into the same pension system that covers the current teachers.

Blanton said he’s not satisfied with the small changes that were made to the plan, but it has come a long way from the governor’s first proposal, which stated they would have to work longer and be in a 401(k)-type plan. 

He also noted that he believes the governor’s recent comments about teachers have contributed to a lot of the current frustration and anger. 

“I can’t help what he says, but it doesn’t help anything,” Blanton said. “I don’t endorse the bill, but there’s been a lot of fear and anger. After everything settles and people see the changes are not what they thought, when you look at where we started and where we ended up, it’s not as bad as it could have been.”