FRANKFORT — No one expected teachers to enthusiastically embrace recommendations to reform their pension system an outside consulting group — but the intensity of their unhappiness may have surprised some lawmakers and Gov. Matt Bevin.
“They are livid,” said Regina Huff, who is both a special education teacher in Whitley County Schools and a Republican state representative who will have to vote on pension reform in a proposed special session.
Huff’s colleagues also aren’t pleased with comments Bevin made in a Facebook video criticizing teachers, who might choose to retire before changes to their retirement benefits can be enacted, as selfish.
Huff said teachers see those comments as “degrading and hurtful” and they “just added to the frustrations” of teachers, many of whom are considering retirement.
One in five of Kentucky’s public school teachers have accrued the necessary number of years for full retirement benefits, according to Beau Barnes, Deputy Executive Secretary and General Counsel for the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System.
Barnes said KTRS received 622 visits in August from teachers considering retirement. Last August, the number was 525.
But those numbers may spike because teachers must file paperwork for retirement a month in advance, so the full impact of the PFM Group’s recommendations on teachers’ plans may not be understood for another month.
Bevin and legislative leaders have assured state employees and teachers that any changes to the pension system will include an effective date at least 90 days out, providing sufficient time for eligible employees to decide whether to get out prior to the changes.
But that hasn’t eased the anxiety.
Cortni Crews, Assistant Superintendent for Barren County Schools, is worried about an increase in retirements. She said Barren County has at least 50 employees who are eligible for full retirement.
Because teachers can compute 30 percent of unused sick days for their final pay and use it to boost retirement, an increase in retirements also increases a school district’s costs. Crews said if the 50 employees chose to retire it would cost the district an extra $700,000.
Dr. Ron Dotson, Superintendent of Carter County Schools, says those unplanned retirements would cost his district $500,000 and would represent “a huge disruption” in the middle of a school year.
But Dotson said he can’t blame those teachers who might consider retiring to protect benefits earned over the years.
“There comes a point when you have to do what’s best for your family,” Dotson said. “I would not expect someone to stay if they found out it would cost them money for the rest of their lives.”
Rep. Steve Riley, R-Glasgow, is a retired teacher, coach and administrator who also will have to vote on any proposed changes to the retirement system. He’s hearing “a lot of concern and anxiety” from former colleagues in the Barren County School system as well as teachers from other districts.
Like Huff, Riley was pleased to hear House Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, and Bevin say on Wednesday they don’t think the reforms will include taking back cost of living adjustments already granted to retirees and current employees.
He said he’s reminding teachers the PFM recommendations are just that — recommendations some of which won’t be included in the ultimate legislation.
“I just can’t imagine (the legislation) will be anything close to what was proposed by PFM,” he said.
Teachers are also upset about a proposal to increase the retirement age to 65.
Kelley Ross, who teaches English at Barren County High School, is president of the Barren County Education Association and the Third District of the Kentucky Education Association.
Ross pointed out teachers agreed to increase retirement from 27 years to 30 years and to pay more into their retirement system during the last round of pension reforms. But given the stress and high degree of burnout for teachers, increasing retirement age to 65 represents a broken promise, she said.
“For years, we’ve been told we could retire at an age you can still do something with your life,” Ross said. “This is one of the few professions you don’t have to work until you’re old and gray.”
“It would be kind of hard at 65 years old to contain a room full of kindergarteners,” said Huff. “Let’s not move the finish line for those who’ve put in 20 or 25 years and are now planning to retire.”
Huff, Ross and Dotson all worry changes, which might place new teachers into 401-K plans, Social Security and require them to work to 65, will drive away some who might have gone into teaching.
Teachers know they’re “never going to be wealthy,” Huff said. “But if you start moving the retirement age, then no one is going to be willing to work for that amount of money with the kind of education they have. Retaining and recruiting teachers is a huge concern.”
“Frankly, other than the love of the job and love for kids, the retirement system is one of the few things that draw people into education,” he said. “If that’s taken away, I fear we won’t continue to have the best people in education.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort; Follow him on Twitter a@cnhifrankfort.