Updated: JCPS cancels class due to teacher ‘sickout’

JCPS canceled class for Friday, March 30, after too many teachers called in sick in protest of an 11th-hour pension reform bill passed late Thursday night by the Kentucky Senate.

The district announced the closure on Twitter around 5 a.m. Friday, saying that it would be unable to “safely cover a large number of classes with substitute teachers” in many of their schools. Around 1,270 teachers of JCPS’ 6,600 had called in by 4:45 a.m. and the district anticipated “several hundred” more, a JCPS spokesperson said. Around 20 schools had teacher absences in the double digits.

In a video released Friday afternoon, Superintendent Marty Pollio said the decision to cancel classes was one of, if not the, most difficult decision in his time as superintendent.

“I want our teachers to know that I truly support everything our teachers do,” Pollio said. “I believe our teachers need to be treated as professionals, compensated properly as professionals, and provided the retirement benefits that they’ve been promised.” 

Senate Bill 151, initially a bill regarding wastewater, was gutted and turned into a pension reform bill Thursday. In a move some called illegal, the swapped bill hastily moved through the House before the Senate passed it late Thursday night. At the time of passage, the 291-page bill was not public, and senators were given only hours to read through it before voting. In the hours since its passing, the bill has been posted publicly online.

“There is no question that the tactics employed by both House and Senate leaders were not only reprehensible, but actually illegal — tactics like the undemocratic manner in which this bill was brought forward without stakeholders seeing it, the way it was passed out of committee without a financial analysis as required by state statute, and the way it was jammed through both chambers in the space of only a few hours without allowing legislators or stakeholders time to properly read the bill,” a Jefferson County Teachers Association Facebook post said.

Angry over its passage, teachers across the state and in JCPS called in sick en masse, potentially forcing districts to close for the day if enough teachers called in and not enough substitutes existed to cover for them. Around 28 Kentucky school districts, including Fayette County Public Schools and Oldham County Schools, closed Friday due to what some have dubbed the “pension flu.”

Schools in red are closings due to teacher absences, while schools in yellow are still open with a significant number of missing teachers. Schools in green were already closed. | Map by Kenny Colston

Due to the school closing, the official last day for JCPS schools will be May 31. Graduation dates, which were approved earlier this week, had to be pushed back as well.

“It’s not simply the cutting of the pension but the slow dismantling of public education and its value in our state,” Fern Creek High School Principal Nate Meyer tweeted. “It’s a sad day for Kentucky. Our teachers and the students we serve deserve better.”

In a Friday afternoon press conference, Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler called the rushed bill a “bomb on public service.”

“These political shenanigans are unacceptable,” Winkler said to a group of press and teachers. “Anyone who voted for this bill will need to start packing up their legislative office.”

The JCTA asked teachers to rally at the Capitol on Monday instead of holding the “sickout.” The union’s president, Brent McKim, said they would be legally challenging the bill because it was passed without financial analysis, making it illegal.

Friday morning, Attorney General Andy Beshear agreed, saying the bill is illegal and will sue to block it from being implemented if Gov. Matt Bevin signs it.

“I’m concerned that what we’re doing is illegal,” Rep. Jim Wayne said during Senate discussion Thursday night. “We need an actuarial analysis. There is no actuarial analysis … We have a 291-page document put before us without any input whatsoever from the stakeholders.”

“It is reprehensible that the pension reform legislation was hastily introduced under a waste water bill, in a deliberate attempt to deceive the voting public, especially our dedicated educators,” Louisville Congresswoman Jessica Green said in a statement.

Bevin tweeted Thursday that “anyone who will receive a retirement check in the years ahead owes a deep debt of gratitude” to the legislators who pushed the bill through. Chris Brady, a member of the Jefferson County Board of Education, responded that those legislators may not have a job after the next election.

If Bevin signs the bill, existing “inviolable contract” provisions protecting the retirement system from future legislative changes will no longer apply.

Gov. Matt Bevin

Public employees won’t be able to collect sick days after the end of 2018, a common method of boosting retirement benefits. Agencies also won’t be allowed to establish sick leave programs in the future.

New hires would be moved to a hybrid plan that is a cross between the current pension plan and a 401(k)-style plan. The new type of plan would give them all contributed money to their accounts, plus 85 percent of investment gains on those funds. The state would keep the remaining 15 percent of gains.

Teachers who retire after 2019 will not be eligible for cost of living pension adjustments. Current and retired teachers, however, will continue to receive a 1.5 percent annual adjustment. Since teachers do not receive Social Security benefits, the cost of living adjustments help retired teachers keep up with inflated costs of living. SB 1, the initial attempt at pension reform this session, called for a harshly criticized 33 percent cut to the adjustments.

Some benefits were also cut. Teachers who retire in January 2019 or later will not have a life insurance benefit, and those who retired or retire after January 2014 can no longer receive a $5,000 death benefit.

Pension reform has been heavily focused on and protested this session, with SB 1 drawing criticism from teachers across the state. When, after teacher protests, SB 1 became stalled, Bevin blamed “selfish” and “uninformed” teachers, later saying they have a “thug mentality.”

This post may be updated.