‘An education crisis’

Published 10:50 am Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Teachers concerned about proposed pension changes explain why it’s a big deal, affecting everyone

Eyes around the commonwealth are turned to Frankfort, as teachers and others around the state await what the future will bring for the state pension systems. Boyle County teachers, like many around the state, find themselves upset over what they call broken promises, and worried for the future.

“I don’t like this ‘Keeping the Promise.’ This is not keeping the promise, this is breaking the promise,” said Katie Tiller, an English teacher at the Boyle County High School who just started her 27th year in education, referring to the name of the plan recently released by Gov. Matt Bevin.

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Tiller said teachers realize there’s a problem with the pension systems.

“That’s no news flash to us. Universally, teachers acknowledge that something has to be done,” she said. “People have specific problems with this proposal. There are some very specific concerns.”

John Elliott, a fifth-grade teacher at Woodlawn Elementary School for five years, likened the situation to the fall of the housing and stock markets that hit about 10 years ago.

“The taxpayers had to pay for that,” he said. “It’s falling on us to pay for the mistakes that were out of our control … The taxpayer had to bail out Wall Street. We’re taking the brunt for misallocation or misappropriation of funds.”

Having a lack of input from stakeholders is a big concern, said Patricia Calvert, a 27-year educator at Danville High School, and Norma Hopkins, a 23-year teacher at Hogsett Elementary School.

“We don’t feel like we’ve had a voice,” Hopkins said. 

Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposal calls for doing away with allowing accumulated sick days to be cashed in at the end of a teacher’s career.

Eli Edwards, a four-year sophomore English teacher at BCHS, said he was concerned, not for himself and teachers at Boyle County, but for other teachers, because Bevin’s plan also eliminates the guarantee of 10 sick days a year.

“If they make that an option, there will be districts that take advantage of that,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think Boyle County would be one to eliminate sick days. But “as teachers, an injustice to a teacher in (another) county is an injustice to us all.”

Tiller said, “People are talking about ‘Why are sick days such a big deal?’ One of two things will happen, I think. People will either retire in time to use the accrued value of their sick days, or they’ll take those sick days.”

Tiller noted, “There is a substitute shortage.”

Part of the proposed plan also limits retired teachers from teaching — currently, they can work 100 days a year, but under Bevin’s plan, they will be limited to 100 hours a month.

Tiller said she thinks that will limit retired teachers’ ability to serve as long-term subs, a role they fill on occasions. 

Lisa Brown, a 13-year special education teacher at Junction City Elementary School, said, “When we tie the hands of retired teachers — who’s going to fill that position? We may be able to find a teacher that hasn’t gotten a job yet that has a degree … How is that going impact the student? It’s scary.”

Tiller recalled both of her sons had teachers who had breast cancer, and it put them out of the classroom for a while. 

“In each instance, there was a retired substitute that came in … You’re talking about a young child who was scared. The teacher had cancer and that was scary,” Tiller said. “It was a familiar face and it was a comfort to them to have someone familiar … Kids want to know it’s going to be okay. We can’t take that human factor out of the education experience.”

Retired teachers are the “most high-demand subs,” said Elliott, because they allow instruction to move forward. Without those retired teachers, he said, “you might as well hit time out.”

“I had knee surgery last year, so I was very intentional about trying to get someone in the classroom that I trusted, that I thought the kids knew. That’s important to me because I value my students and I value what’s happening in my classroom,” Tiller said. “I don’t want to leave it to chance.”

Elliott said he believes the proposed changes will make it difficult to sustain the quality of education in the classroom.

If the plan goes through, teachers’ pensions or retirements can be in jeopardy if they go into another public-sector job, such serving as an elected office or becoming a paramedic.

“It’s disenfranchising us from being able to run for office and have any sort of representation from teachers and other state employees in the future,” Edwards said, questioning if any other groups were told they couldn’t run for office. “Felons. Teachers and felons. We can run for office, but they’ll take our pension away.”

Currently, Hopkins said, teachers contribute 9.1 percent of their salaries to their pensions and 3.7 percent beyond that to retiree health, for a total of 12.6 percent out of their paychecks.

Bevin’s plan also calls for a 3-percent increase in contributions, to be put into a public retirement health fund. Hopkins said a total of about 15 percent is being proposed to be taken out of teachers’ paychecks. Calvert called that a “significant amount.”

Edwards said there’s some questions being raised about where the added contributions would actually go. Currently, no such retirement health fund exists. Steve Meadows, in his 27th year teaching English, speech and drama at the Danville High School, said that concerns him, too.

“Further analysis of the bill has shown that money’s not going to go to retiree benefits, it’s just going to replace money they’re taking out of retiree health benefits,” he said. “We won’t actually get any extra money in retiree health benefits. It seems like just taking money from teachers.”

The proposals, he said, seem to be about diminishing the pensions teachers have built their futures around.

“It seems a little unfair,” Meadows said. “Actually, a lot unfair. The teachers paid their money. You can’t squelch on a deal without hurting someone, and that seems to be what’s going to happen if these proposals go through.”

Tiller said she’s at a “full career.”

“I’m 48 years old … I can’t ever get to 30 years of service and age 55, unless I want to lose the value of my sick days and go into a 401(k),” she said. “Anyone would tell you, why would you want a 401(k) for three or four years? That wouldn’t be an asset to me in any way.”

She has always been planning to retire after 30 years, but now feels she can’t do that.

“I can’t get to that threshold under this plan without taking a significant financial hit for the rest of my life,” she said. “On the one hand, we keep hearing, ‘Teachers need to work longer. Teachers need to work until they’re 60 or 65.’ But on the other hand, you have all of these teachers who are going to be forced into retirement in their late 40s and early 50s.”

To top it off, Tiller said, they won’t be able to continue using their teaching license in any way if they want to keep their retirement under the new plan.

“We have a license to do what we do … Now, I can’t use my license. Not only am I going to have to retire at age 51 — who does that? — but I am also going to lose the ability to use my professional certification to earn income,” she said. At that point, she’ll have one child in college and one preparing to go to college, and, “no one retires when they’re trying to pay for kids to go to college.”

“It’s heartbreaking for me to think about it,” she said. “I love those kids. It makes me really sad because I feel like I’m not finished. I enjoy the kids. I love them. It just makes me sad. I feel like retirement should be a happy thing and not something you’re being forced into.”

Meadows, like Tiller, said he’s facing big decisions.

“There are a lot of us in this frame. They said one-fourth of the state could retire now,” he said. “It’s not like there are dozens of applicants for every job because there are not … There are not as many applicants as there used to be. Cutting the benefits or making it less desirable will make it even harder,” he said.

There are some at Danville High School, he said, who have chosen to stay past 27 years — people who “could walk out the door any time they want to.”

“They’ve chosen to stay on, in part because they can increase their benefit if they choose to stay past 27,” he said. “To revise the plan seems to make it not very lucrative to stay past 27 and that cuts out a whole section of experienced teachers who could be and are very useful to districts.”

Calvert finds herself in that same boat.

“I don’t want to retire. I love my job,” she said. “It’s just frustrating that all those years spent working — I haven’t missed a payment toward my retirement — it’s frustrating that now we’re being asked to give more.”

Mark Kendrick, a Boyle County Middle School social studies teacher in his 24th year of teaching, said he feels the rule are being changed.

“I’m at the point where I’m approaching retirement, but I’m not quite far enough along to be in that three-year window of ‘grace period,’ if you will. It will quite possible force me into retirement in three years, rather than when I planned to work, until age 55,” he said. “And I’ll probably see a difference of $10,000-$15,000, per year in retirement.”

Hopkins said, “It’s not keeping the promise when teachers are being asked to retire at 27 years. The promise at the beginning was … you were encouraged to go to 55. I will have two teenagers in college (when I’ve been teaching for 27 years). I wasn’t planning on retiring at 27 years before all of this came up.”

Tiller said they believe there’s about 15 teachers and administrators in the Boyle County system who could retire right now, and she’s not sure how those vacancies would be filled.

“The district would have to pay a lot out to cover that mass exodus,” said Edwards.

“Which is then going to place a burden on the taxpayers,” Tiller said. “For many people in the public, this is a ‘teacher problem.’ It’s not a teacher problem. It’s an education crisis. An education crisis is about everyone — every parent, every taxpayer, every stakeholder in this community should be concerned about what’s going to happen to their public schools.”

It will also overburden the remaining teachers, she said.

Kendrick said he was concerned about being forced into a 401(k) system, which is what has been proposed, without being able to get Social Security.

“You’re not going to get qualified candidates into the teaching profession,” he said. “They’re going to choose not to do that, because who would do that? There’s no safety net whatsoever. A collapse of the economy, you’ve lost your entire retirement. You could be two years from retirement and lose it all.”

Edwards said, “Gov. Bevin’s putting me in a situation where I have to choose between a defined benefit that contains a lot less benefits, or I can move into a direct contribution plan, which can be a gamble. I might have to choose to go to another state to be a teacher. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to leave the students of Kentucky, this place that I love, where I’m from.

“This plan is putting us in impossible situations … We love what we do, but we also have to think about ourselves and our families.”

Brown said teachers don’t go into teaching for the money.

“We don’t get paid for the job and the hours that we put into it,” she said, explaining that every teacher works more than the perceived 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. “when you calculate the hours teachers are planning, parents are emailing or calling, or we’re at a meeting, a fundraiser or after-school event — I had a job at a factory and I worked at a bank. I work double the hours as a teacher as I did in those professions and make less money.”

Brown cited a study from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

“The average national starting salary for a teacher is $30,377, with a four-year college degree. Other professions with the same degree start out at least $15,000 higher. Over the course of a few years, we make 50 percent less than professionals with the same degree,” she said. “The benefit package we have now isn’t that great. But it helps call people to this profession. We don’t do it for the money … (The pension) helps make it a little better, where you can live.”

Teachers, she said, are required to obtain a master’s degree, something that other professions typically aren’t required to do, in order to get raises.

“When they say a 3-percent decrease in pay, that doesn’t sound bad to some, but when you’ve had a 3-percent increase over 10 years, you’re taking away 10 years worth of raises from teachers,” Brown said.

For families like Elliott’s and many others, where both spouses are teachers, it’s especially concerning. Elliott is in his second career, so while his wife is around year 13, he is only at year five, and knows 27 isn’t likely.

“I don’t know. For me, it could be my out of education,” he said. “It could force my hand, when I have to think ‘big picture,’ financially. And I love (teaching) … For us as a family, it’s brought about an interesting dialogue.”

Elliott said he got into teaching after leaving a high-paying career that kept him traveling away from home a lot, but he quit to pursue teaching so that he and his wife were able to make a life together. 

“And I love it,” Elliott said. 

“And the kids love him,” said Tiller. Her sons have had Elliott.

Ryan New, in his ninth year teaching AP Government and Politics, AP World History and U.S. History at BCHS, is like Elliott in that his wife also teaches.

He loves teaching, but fears they may have to move.

“I love teaching so much, but I hate being scapegoated,” he said. “There is no greater return on investment than education.”

Kendrick said the economic impact will really be felt in counties where the school districts are the largest employers. Retired teachers, too, might be hit with a salary freeze, under the proposals but, Brown said, the cost of living is not going to freeze.

Elliott agreed and said the economic impact will be immeasurable in the businesses of Boyle County, because it will hit the surrounding counties, which feed into Danville to shop and eat.

New said he had crunched some rough numbers and calculated that, based on the idea that 200-300 teachers live in Danville and Boyle County, the plan will cost the educators within the county’s borders about $400,000. New said similar plans had been looked at in other states, but was reconsidered because of the negative economic impact. West Virginia, he said, went through with the shift and is now looking to switch back.

“For a governor who’s so about having a strong economy, he’s got to understand, if you destroy education, you can’t have an economy,” New said.

“To some degree, whether it’s been intentional or not, we’ve been vilified. … the word ‘hoarding’ was used with sick days — that’s not hoarding. That’s them coming in sick to teach,” Elliott said. “I have never taken a sick day because I was sick. It was because my children were sick. Most teachers will say that same thing. Our commitment has been vilified.”

Calvert said “negative, condescending and insulting rhetoric” from the governor is upsetting. 

“It feels like the governor is trying to chip at public education by going at the teachers … If we can’t attract the best and brightest teachers, then we can’t maintain a quality public education program. Maybe he thinks people will find charter schools are the solution,” she said. “All of the best and brightest teachers I’ve ever known have been part of a strong public school. It breaks my heart that we as a state don’t have a commitment to try and attract the best and brightest teachers. Teachers can make the school great.”

Kendrick said there has been an erosion of respect to the profession.

“Every year, you feel like teachers are less and less respected and the profession is less and less respected. And then for the governor to have the platform that he has to resort to name-calling — he’s just fueling that fire of disrespect,” he said.

Edwards said, “How are we supposed to teach these skills of empathy, critical thinking, problem solving, compassion, when all of this is being dealt with in a way that’s counter to those values and skills?”

“We can’t have an open, productive conversation when there’s all this blasphemous, derogatory rhetoric directed at teachers,” said Tiller. “And not just teachers, at all public employees.”

She pointed to a statement Bevin made, when he said, “Opponents of my plan are not sophisticated enough to understand it.”

“It’s just sad to see an elected official stoop to that. You don’t have to go there. You can use reasonable language and treat people with respect … Why do you need to create that kind of animosity? Someone’s not willing to listen when they’re name-calling,” Tiller said. 

Meadows said, “I think divisiveness is not the way to get this matter settled. I think we need to come together to try to find solutions, not beat ourselves against each other.”

Tiller said she keeps getting asked what the solution is.

“It’s not the job of the teachers to figure out the solution to a problem we didn’t create,” she said. “I’m not saying we can’t offer ideas and alternatives. But the solution needs to come from someone, maybe, with an actuary background … I can look at a plan and say, ‘This is how it impacts me. This is how it impacts my colleagues. And this is how it’s going to impact the future of education.’

“I think if the general public thinks, ‘Oh, teachers are just overreacting,’ I think they’re going to be surprised when they see — it’s not a joke and it’s not an idle threat. We really feel as if we have no choice but to leave.”

Kendrick said, “It’s not something we did. As many have said, we’ve never missed a payment for our retirement. We’ve always put in … But yet, we get punished for the inability of others to do what was supposed to be done, fully fund teacher retirement.”

Elliott said that’s the message that gets covered up — that it wasn’t the teachers who failed to pay.

“In the private sector, if funds were misappropriated in this manner, there are legal ramifications … We have not missed that payment. We’ve done our part, yet we’re called upon for the mistakes of others,” he said.

Tiller said, “I think our community is very supportive of our school system. We’re not saying we don’t think our community is supportive.

“I think what we would like to ask, is for people in our community who do support us and do have confidence in what we as a school district do is to find out what’s really going on, how this is really affecting teachers. Not just teachers, but children in this school system. Don’t just listen to the governor on Facebook Live.”

Tiller said parents of young children in Boyle County need to be concerned.

“The ones that are going to pay the real price are the kids at Woodlawn right now,” Tiller said. “It’s not just the education. People have loved (my kids). Their teachers have loved them, probably when they were unlovable.”

Kendrick said he is scared for his future grandchildren.

“What’s the future going to hold in this state for education?” Kendrick asked. “I would be scared to death for my daughter to choose education as a profession if this plan is what the future holds.”

Kendrick said teachers need parents to join them in fighting.

“It’s not enough for teachers to call. We need parents to fight for us. To speak to Frankfort our behalf and to tell Frankfort their concerns for education … if the general public lets their voice be heard, that could make a huge difference,” he said.

For another perspective read Students sound off on their future.

Students sound off on their future