LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Teachers warning of a midterm election house-cleaning in Kentucky prepared to turn up the political heat again Friday when the Republican-dominated legislature reconvenes to take up budget and revenue bills vetoed by the governor.
Public schools in more than 30 Kentucky districts will close because so many teachers and other school workers want to attend the latest rally at Kentucky’s Capitol in Frankfort. Other districts will send delegations but keep classes open.
Kentucky’s unrest comes as teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona are protesting low funding and teacher pay. The demonstrations have been inspired by West Virginia teachers, whose nine-day walkout earlier this year led to a 5 percent pay increase. But in Kentucky, teacher anger has boiled over amid changes to their pension system and a battle for more education funding.
“This should be the most important rally of the entire session,” Patricia Lea Collins, the Head Start and preschool director for the Pike County school system, said Thursday.
On Facebook, Garrard County school district officials said: “School staff are not heading to Frankfort for selfish reasons. We are going to advocate for our children and for public education.”
Thousands of Kentucky educators, chanting they’ll “remember in November,” filled the Capitol earlier this month to demand generous school funding and oppose pension changes.
This year’s rallies came as Kentucky lawmakers grapple with the complexities of passing a new two-year state budget, searching for education funding and trying to fix one of the country’s worst-funded pension systems. The state is at least $41 billion short of the money it needs to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years, straining state and local government finances.
Since the last rally, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has vetoed a state budget that included record-high classroom spending, restored school transportation funding and ensured teachers who retired after 2010 but don’t yet qualify for Medicare have health insurance.
Bevin also vetoed a $480 million tax increase lawmakers sought to fuel education spending. The revenue bill would impose a 6 percent sales tax on a variety of services like auto and home repairs while cutting the income tax rate for some individuals and businesses.
Bevin’s administration questioned the revenue projections, saying the new taxes would not pay for the spending that lawmakers approved, but would lead to at least a $50 million shortfall over the next two years. Bevin said the budget and the new taxes were not responsible or wise.
The Kentucky Education Association, the statewide teachers union, sharply criticized Bevin’s vetoes. It called for a “day of action” by teachers Friday, when lawmakers begin a scheduled two-day wrap-up of the legislative session.
Bevin barked back, saying the teachers’ position on the budget bill had changed over time. He blasted the union’s leadership as “absolute frauds” and said they had not been clear in what they wanted lawmakers to do. The union has urged lawmakers to override the vetoes.
Bevin further angered teachers this week by signing legislation that alters the state pension program for teachers and other state employees. The changes preserve benefits for most workers but move new hires into a hybrid plan. Opponents worry the changes will discourage young people from becoming teachers.
The pension changes have already drawn a court challenge. lt’s unclear what will happen on the budget and tax bills if lawmakers uphold the governor’s vetoes. A majority of the membership in each chamber is needed to override a veto, and observers expect a close vote.
If lawmakers let the vetoes stand, Bevin could call them back into special session to pass a budget before the new fiscal year starts in July. Without a new budget, Kentucky government would partially shut down July 1.
Both urban and rural school districts statewide canceled classes Friday. They included the state’s two largest school districts spanning Louisville and Lexington.
“Our teachers and support staff have answered the call to advocate for students by encouraging our lawmakers to fully fund education,” said Manny Caulk, superintendent of Fayette County schools in Lexington.
In Meade County, where schools will close Friday, hundreds showed support for education at a rally Wednesday at a high school football field. It was similar to turnouts for varsity football games, said Meade County schools Superintendent John Millay. He said teachers deserve to have their voices heard.
“Teachers as a whole have never been ones to get involved in any political process,” he said. “They do their work. They trust that … the people that make the laws will take care of them. But that trust has been kind of broken.”