Superintendents speak at chamber

Frustrations concerning Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed retirement plan for teachers is rapidly growing among school officials as well as the general public, causing an urgency to propose an alternative before the bill is passed.

Officials of both school districts of Harlan addressed the Harlan County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, noting that if the bill is passed Harlan County may see and an exodus of workers even greater than the one that followed the closing of the coal industry in recent years, as well as a lesser quality of education for students.

“I fear if this pension plan goes through…you saw an exodus of coal miners leaving because they had to find other options…if this goes through Harlan County will see a second exodus and it will be of the educators — because the ones going into education will not come back because the pension is not there for them. It’s not attractive to them as a profession anymore. And you are also going to see these 27-year people who really want to keep working and really want to stay in Harlan for another five, 10, 15 years…they’re not going have an option. They are going to go ahead and find something else to do. They are not going find anything else to do in Harlan to make $20,000 or $30,000 a year. So they’re going to leave,” said Harlan County Schools Superintendent Brent Roark.

Besides being a tragedy to the county’s economy, both Roark and Harlan Independent School District Superintendent C.D. Morton agreed that with the loss of teachers it will greatly impact the education of the area students.

“The worst thing we can have are people who don’t want to be in education. The field has got to be attractive to good high-quality people. That’s really what makes a difference, said Morton. “I read some research recently that was talking about the kinds of courses that you take…you know…some people promoting you taking this class multiple times and really there’s not research that says a kid is going to do better by taking the same class multiple times on a topic. It’s having really good instruction by a really good teacher who really wants to be there. And that’s what we want…that’s what we both want…we want the best people we can possibly get and I’m afraid this (retirement proposal) may detract from that.”

Documents given out during Wednesday’s meeting specified that the school districts’ research and projected impact is narrowly focused around the impact on the K-12 community, which states that a one-size fits all does not work for the various pension systems currently in place in the commonwealth., with emphasis on the fact that as superintendents Morton and Roark have an obligation to advocate for their school community.

The Kentucky Associations of School Superintendents Inc. has drafted a shared responsibility plan to be presented, which proposes viable alternatives to Bevin’s pension reform proposal.

Dr. Tom Shelton, director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents Inc., said in a recent public statement that the shared responsibility plan demonstrates the willingness of the state’s education organizers and members to implement changes that will strengthen the pension program and maintain its stability.

“We must protect the ability of public education to recruit and retain quality educators,” said Shelton in that statement. “Teachers and educational professionals build the foundation upon which every other area of public life in Kentucky stands. We often hear that children are the future, and that is true, but it is also true that as leaders, we stand at a pivotal moment in time as the decisions we make today will directly impact the future of our children.”

The governor’s current retirement plan draft bill creates a completely new pension system moving the majority of current employees from a defined benefit system to a defined contribution system, changes the formula used to calculate retirement benefits, and stops benefits that were prefunded with retirement contributions already made by the employer.

The draft bill proposes the freezing of the Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) at 1.5 percent for current retirees. The COLA has been funded by employee at a rate of 1.74 percent throughout their working career to allocate funds for the 1.5 percent COLA post-retirement.

Some calculations show that a retiree drawing $36,000 ($3,000 monthly) in annual benefits would lose more than $70,000 in lifetime benefits if COLAs were suspended five years. If they are eliminated, the employees would lose more than $190,000.

As stated by both Morton and Roark during Wednesday’s meeting, besides having a tragic impact on the quality of student education, this proposal, if passed, would have a drastic effect on the county’s economy.

The Kentucky Association of School Superintendents Inc. is expecting to have a seat at the table to discuss the association’s alternative proposal with Bevin.