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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Fort Thomas Education Community to Participate in Walk-In to Protest Budget Bill

Fort Thomas teachers and staff will be joining a growing statewide protest for proposed Kentucky budget cuts directed at school districts and, as they see it, a lack of a viable pension reform bill.

District employees are planning a walk-in on Monday, 3-26-18 beginning at 7:15 a.m. at each of the five public schools in Fort Thomas. The walk-in is being organized by the Fort Thomas Education Association, which is the district's local Kentucky Education Association. School districts in Kenton and Boone County staged similar protests on Friday.

"We want to make the community aware of the proposed Kentucky budget cuts that will affect our schools and the pension funding that teachers were promised," said Mary Kinsella, Co-President of the Fort Thomas Education Association. "I feel that educators are being mistreated greatly. The harsh and unkind remarks at the state level are unnecessary."

Dawn Hils, who is the other Co-President and 29-year teaching veteran at Woodfill Elementary School, said that teachers and staff are planning to be in the front of their buildings for drop-off and arrival time with signs protesting this budget bill.

"We feel a professional and personal responsibility to stand up for what is right for our students, as well as our current, retired and future teachers of this community," she said.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt told a House budget subcommittee that cutting the state’s education achievement gap in half in the next 13 years is unrealistic without sufficient funding.

“Our districts are under extreme financial distress,” Pruitt told reporters.

The Northern Kentucky Education Association, echoed that message, stating that Kentucky must restore funding for programs like SEEK (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky) funding, Family Resource and Youth Services Centers, preschool, KTIP (Kentucky Teacher Internship Program), ARC (Actuarially Required Contribution) funding to public pension systems, and professional development.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s two-year budget proposal would keep per-student K-12 funding at the same level in the next two fiscal years, but it would inflict cuts elsewhere. He unveiled a spending plan in mid-January that would impose reductions across most of state government.

Bevin’s proposal would cut the state’s share of health insurance coverage for school districts by tens of millions of dollars, and would require districts to cut administrative costs by 12 percent.

Sen. Wil Schroder, who represents Fort Thomas in the Kentucky Senate said that the Senate's version of the budget placed a commitment on education.

"We were able to accomplish this by investing record amounts in per-pupil funding for schools, known as(SEEK), and funding school transportation at historical records," he said.  "The fiscally prudent budget was the result of directing additional money to Kentucky’s drastically underfunded public pensions."

The Senate budget takes funding from the pension system and shifts healthcare costs onto the districts, which the education community believes would have devastating effects on the amount of money they can devote to the students.

Schroder said that while the Senate plan does not contain $59.5 million for retired teachers’ health care, it would use a nearly $1 billion trust fund to pay for the insurance.

"The Senate plan contained language intended to make it more affordable for school districts to hire resource officers and implement other security measures, as well. This bill does not have language funding charter schools, but it does allow some education dollars to follow the students if their families choose to enroll them in a charter school."

Despite Schroder's explanation of the Senate budget, what has teachers up in arms is the fact the ARC (Actuarially Required Contribution) is funded far less than other two public-employee plans.

Both the Governor and House's plan funded the full ARC for all plans, leaving only the teacher's plan far below what the actuaries require in the Senate plan. This has members of the education community feeling like the budget is punishing them for not supporting Senate Bill 1, known as the pension bill.

"While Senate Bill 1 is still floating out there, worrying our retired teachers with reductions in their costs of living adjustments what the Senate did last week, when they put their touches on the budget bill (House Bill 200), was cut the annual required funding for teacher retirement in half," said Hils.

"As they say, our teacher retirement system works when it's fully funded, and cutting it by a billion dollars is not going to get it done. It's generally felt around the state that because the education community did not support SB1, the Senate essentially threw teachers under the bus by not funding our pensions in the budget. Then, to fund other things, both Houses, in fact, are dipping deeply into our healthcare pot of money. So our retirement is insecure and our health care is insecure. To say teachers are feeling devalued and nervous is an understatement."

The education community in northern Kentucky and across the state at large believe these bills, Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 200, could put the future of education in peril going forward. Kinsella said she believes it's time to get the community involved, which is the goal of the protests Monday.

"The budget, as it stands, has an immediate impact on Fort Thomas as it decreases our textbook and professional development funds, and if the district has to cover reduced employee healthcare and retirement for classified staff, this could mean decreases in staffing and instructional materials," said Hils.

There are some stark realities that teachers and districts will have to face if this budget is passed.

If the County Employee Retirement System (CERS) phase-in bill is not passed, in real dollars, Fort Thomas Independent Schools will have to pay an additional $200,000 this year.

Additionally, the current budget does not cover funding for pre-65 retiree health care subsidies. In real terms, this means that teachers won't be able to retire after 27-30 years of service because they will be left with high premiums until the age of 65 when they can finally rely on Medicare. This may push those entering the workforce to look elsewhere for employments.

The average yearly wage for an elementary teacher in Kentucky in 2016 was $52,420. In Ohio, that number was $59,000 for the same job.

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"When you consider that difference, under current proposals, it would be difficult for a teacher in northern Kentucky, with under 10 years of experience to feel motivated to stay in northern Kentucky. It is difficult to pay for student loans and make adequate investments for a future, with no promise of Social Security, while trying to raise a family," said Heidi Neltner, Digital Learning Coach at Fort Thomas Independent Schools.

"A fully funded pension is a promise for a future. For teachers in Kentucky who enter and stay in the profession, knowing they are going to make less than other people with a comparable level of education, the pension is incentive to do what you love, positively impact the lives of students - our future work force - and still know that you will have something to look forward to at the end of your career."

She said that the current proposal puts the future well-being of not only our current educators, but our recent retirees at risk.

"If this budget passes as is, we will see teachers all over Northern Kentucky looking for employment in other states and industries, and we will see a group of retirees scrambling to find jobs that offer benefits as those are unexpectedly stripped away. You will see economic strain as our retirees are forced to spend money on health care instead of the local economy, you will see a decline in the skills of our future workforce as the most innovative teachers, advocating for change, look outside the state, and you will see a shortfall in teachers as a profession as our students in college switch gears and look elsewhere."

Hils agrees.

"You can't balance a budget on the backs of teachers, and the only way we can attract and retain quality teachers is through a defined benefit system," said Hils. "How will we ever attract and retain the best possible teachers for generations to come? Whether through SB1 or HB200, it must be recognized that Kentucky will lose its edge as all of the best teacher candidates will flock to neighboring states which offer higher salaries and better benefit.

The time-honored tradition of growing up in Fort Thomas and moving back to our beautiful community as adults, will discontinue pretty quickly if our best and brightest teachers go elsewhere."

As teachers and district employees brave the cold and unseasonably snowy spring day tomorrow, they want the community to know that they have solutions that they believe could work. The House budget, which is regarded as more favorable to the education community than the Senate's version, included tax increases on cigarette and opioid usage, which would raise about $250 million yearly in new revenue.

"We must find revenue to restore education funding," said Hils. "In the end, all of this moving money around cuts both teachers and students one way or another. Legislators talk about kicking the can down the road, but grabbing money from different pots to fill others, is really just the same idea. 

Robbing Peter to pay Paul is like kicking the can down the road, and it doesn't solve a darn thing."  

PHOTO: Quincy Grubbs working on her sign for the walk-in scheduled for Monday, with mother, Connie Grubbs. 

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