Andy Beshear stopped by to support teachers during a hearing in Frankfort.
Matt Stone, Louisville Courier Journal
FRANKFORT — Kentucky teachers descended on the state Capitol after staging a massive “sickout” Thursday that forced the state’s two largest school districts and several others to close.
Thousands of teachers called in sick across the Bluegrass State on Wednesday night, heeding the call from a grassroots group to head to Frankfort in protest of a bill that would affect the management of the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System.
At least eight school districts are closed Thursday, including those in Louisville and Lexington.
The demonstrations mark the latest in a wave of teacher walkouts around the country. The strikes started a year ago in West Virginia and spread to red states such as Arizona and Oklahoma. Kentucky teachers themselves joined the demonstrations last year, holding sickouts and flooding the state capital on two days last April.
The strikes have continued this year, spreading to Democratic Los Angeles and Denver. Teachers in Oakland have been on strike for a week. Last week, the movement returned to the state where it started, when teachers in West Virginia held a two-day walkout to protest a bill that would bring charter schools to the state. Lawmakers killed the legislation during the strike.
By mid-morning Thursday, hundreds of Kentucky teachers donning red were streaming into the Capitol Annex building.
They came in response to a call from KY 120 United, a network of teachers and other public school employees, to protest House Bill 525.
That bill, which will be heard by a House committee Thursday afternoon, would restructure the board that manages teachers’ pensions. Under the changes, the Kentucky Education Association would have less representation on the board.
The statewide teachers union, which represents nearly 30,000 members, would be able to nominate just one board member. It’s currently able to nominate four.
The union said the bill is retaliation for teachers’ continued protests over changes to the pension system.
But the bill sponsor, Rep. Ken Upchurch, R-Monticello, said a committee substitute of the bill addresses those concerns.
A change late Thursday morning would include a position for the Jefferson County Teacher Association.
Upchurch said he’s already heard from teachers who are satisfied with those changes.
“You explain it to the affected parties, and they’re saying, ‘well why are we calling off school today? Why are we going through all of this fever-pitched frenzy for what you’re trying to do here? We like what you’re trying to do.’”
Laura Rhea, a teacher with Jefferson County Public Schools, arrived in Frankfort early Thursday so that she could nab a seat in the hearing room.
She said she chose to call in sick to let lawmakers know she’s fed up.
“The thought of removing most of the teacher representation in this board is ludicrous,” Rhea said. “It’s a slap in the face.”
Rhea, who’s nearing retirement, said she’s concerned that changes to the pension board could affect the state’s ability to attract teachers in the future.
“If compensation, benefits and guarantees aren’t there — well, that’s part of the attraction,” she said.
Several teachers said that Thursday’s protest was about more than the pension board bill.
Steve Farris, also a JCPS teacher, held a sign listing more than a dozen grievances with Gov. Matt Bevin.
One of the grievances referenced comments Bevin made last year criticizing teacher protests, including claims that the sickouts caused unattended children to be molested.
Teachers’ fury over those comments hasn’t gone away, Farris said.
“It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” he said.
Kevin Presnell, a teacher from Madison County, said he also traveled to the Capitol to let lawmakers know that educators are paying attention.
“We’re not going to deal with these underhanded tricks anymore,” said Presnell, who added that the pension board bill is “retribution for a lot of teachers standing up.”
Presnell said he first became involved in the #RedforEd movement last year, when lawmakers rushed through a surprise pension reform bill. Before that, he had never attended a protest, he said.
After massive protests, lawmakers backed down on some of the more controversial provisions of that legislation.
“We’re starting to see that we can have a voice,” Presnell said.
Rhea, who teaches government to high schoolers, balked at criticism of the sickout, including condemnation from Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis.
She said she would tell her students she spent Thursday exercising her First Amendment rights.
“I think there’s a great lesson in this for our kids,” Rhea said. “I could be at home in bed right now, but this is a cause worth fighting for.”
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Follow Mandy McLaren on Twitter: @mandy_mclaren.
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