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Kentucky Districts Call Off Classes Due to Teacher Absences

Ryland Barton

Schools in several of Kentucky's largest counties were forced to close Friday when teachers angered by the abrupt passage of a pension overhaul refused to go to work.

The state's two largest districts in Louisville and Lexington were among at least eight school districts that closed schools due to widespread employee absences.

"A lot of sick days are going to be used today," said Patricia Lea Collins, the Head Start and preschool director for the Pike County school system, where schools were closed Friday.

The Kentucky Education Association branded as "shameful" the swift way lawmakers pushed the measure through the Republican-led Legislature without allowing the public a chance to comment. One of the association's principal objections is that the measure will change the structure of pension benefits for future teachers.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin supports the bill and tweeted Thursday night that public workers owe "a deep debt of gratitude" to the lawmakers who voted in favor.

Jefferson County officials in Louisville said they couldn't get enough substitutes to cover all their classes Friday. In Fayette County, officials said more than a third of school employees in the Lexington district were staying home.

North of Lexington, the Scott County school district called off classes. It said on Facebook that since the bill's passage, dozens of teachers requested substitutes to fill in for them Friday.

"We can currently only fill 54 of the nearly 150 that we need," the statement said. "That leaves too many classes not covered, which causes a situation that is unsafe and unproductive for students and staff."

About 200 teachers and supporters rallied at the Capitol on Thursday night as lawmakers finished their swift action on the surprise pension bill. Last week, thousands of teachers and supporters mostly from eastern Kentucky swarmed the statehouse.

The final version of the pension overhaul removed some of the most vilified provisions of previous proposals. Current and retired teachers, who are not eligible for Social Security benefits, would still get annual raises of 1.5 percent in their retirement checks. And current workers would not have to work longer to qualify for full benefits.

But new hires would be moved to a hybrid plan. They would be guaranteed all of the money they and taxpayers contributed to their retirement accounts, plus 85 percent of any investment gains. The state would keep the other 15 percent. The bill would also allow the state to change pension benefits for new teachers from an "inviolable contract" that would protect them from future benefit changes.

Retired educators like Carlotta Abbot worried about how it would impact the future of their profession.

"I have a 19-year-old granddaughter who wants to become an educator, and I cannot in good faith encourage her to become a teacher now," she said Thursday.

Lawmakers had struggled for months to overhaul one of the nation's worst-funded pension systems. The 291-page bill re-emerged suddenly Thursday in place of a sewage bill.

"It's just a travesty to our profession, to public education that they thought no more of us than to attach us to a garbage bill," Collins said Friday.

Kentucky's Legislature didn't meet Friday but is scheduled to reconvene at the Capitol in Frankfort on Monday. They may be greeted by throngs of angry teachers. KEA leaders in Frankfort are hoping to "get as many people here as possible," an association official said.

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