Rep. Ken Upchurch presented HB 525 on Thursday as teachers who opposed the bill watched. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Last March, Kentucky teachers staged a sickout to protest 11th-hour pension reform rushed through the legislature. Teachers felt directly targeted and ignored, they said.

Nearly a year later, a bill restructuring Kentucky’s Teacher Retirement System’s board cleared the committee despite sickouts closing the state’s two largest districts. Again, educators feel as if their livelihood is under siege.

A seemingly small change to outsiders sparked a quick backlash from teachers, forcing two district closures within hours of a call-to-action on social media.

For hundreds of teachers who showed up in Frankfort, donning red shirts and leading chants, HB 525 is symbolic of what they consider to be a larger GOP-led attack on teachers, their unions, their pensions and public education as a whole.

Nema Brewer, a leader of the grassroots movement KY 120 United that called for the protest, likened the bill to a brick in a wall Wednesday night.

On Thursday, Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler told reporters, “People are just sick to death of getting picked on because we choose to publicly educate the students of this commonwealth.”

But as in the past, the protest drew criticism from Republican state government committee members.

Rep. Jason Nemes called the move “wildly irresponsible.” Bill sponsor Ken Upchurch began his opening statement by apologizing to the families whose children couldn’t go to school Thursday, receiving a chorus of groans from the crowd. Later, he said that educators are “misrepresenting” the bill to maintain control.

Chairman Jerry Miller threatened to have educators removed from the hearing for vocally disagreeing with Upchurch, so much so the standing-room-only crowd began doing silent jazz hands to express approval.

House Bill 525, sponsored by Republican Upchurch, would alter the TRS nominating process and the board handling teachers’ pensions. In the hearing, he said the bill was to heighten the educator voice on the board for all TRS recipients — not just KEA members.

KEA, which represents around 43,000 current and former educators, currently runs the board nominating process. The group accepts nominations from all TRS recipients, both KEA and not, ultimately naming five educators and two lay people to the 11-member board.

Under a committee substitute of HB 525, KEA would be reduced to a handful of nominations. Other education-related groups, including the Jefferson County Teachers Association and the Kentucky School Boards Association, would each get a nomination. Those voices would total to eight of a now-13-member board, alongside a CPA spot and a few others.

Many state government committee members in favor of the bill, which passed 12-5 with one abstaining, argued the current process leaves some educators out in the cold without a voice at the table. One pointed out KEA’s membership represents less than one-fourth of TRS recipients.

Rep. Patti Minter, who pulls from TRS but is not a KEA member, voted against the bill. The bill is one searching for a problem, Minter and others said.

Teachers, who packed into a small Capitol Annex room in Frankfort for over two hours Thursday, didn’t think the process is broken. TRS is considered the best-funded of the pension systems in the state, and its nominating process has worked for decades, teachers say.

KY 120 United leaders suggested Wednesday they would hold a second sickout Friday if the bill passed committee. After the hearing, Winkler called it the “$24,000 question,” but didn’t know if any districts would close.