Kentucky pension crisis: Education commissioner asks teachers for ‘cool heads’

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt sent a video to the state’s teachers Thursday begging them to keep a cool head in the midst of possible sweeping state pension changes, including a proposal to raise the retirement age for teachers to 65.

Gov. Matt Bevin also posted to social media a positive video message to teachers Thursday, saying he was fighting to save the pension system, trying to preserve teachers’ pensions and that the pension system was in crisis.

Twenty percent of Kentucky’s 42,020 public school teachers are eligible to retire, but reported for work in August when classes started. In his video to teachers, Pruitt did not mention comments made Monday by Bevin in a Facebook Live video that were critical of teachers who might retire in the middle of the school year. Those comments have drawn passionate reactions from some educators.

But Pruitt said, “As we go into this time of uncertainty, I’m begging you, let’s keep a cool head, let’s pay attention to good information. And let’s remember …that our profession is the greatest profession on the planet. It’s the one that we get to say everyday, ‘I stand with children.’ And because we stand with children we have every bit of credential and validation we ever need to stand up for our profession.”

In his video on YouTube and Facebook on Thursday, Bevin said some in the media are “intentionally creating division” about the pension issue. Bevin said his grandmother was a public school teacher whose only income in retirement was her public teacher pension. He said his father and two of his siblings were public school teachers.

“This is very personal to me,” Bevin said. “I am very sensitive to what’s involved. This is why I am fighting with everything in my ability to save the pension system.”

Earlier this week, as a state consultant’s pension recommendations were made public, Bevin was asked on Facebook Live about the possibility of an exodus of teachers sparked by possible sweeping state pension changes, including the proposal to raise the retirement age for teachers to 65.

“Frankly, if a teacher thinks so little of their responsibility and their obligation to their students and the families that they’re responsible to that they would literally walk out on their classroom, in their own self-interest, that’s an unfortunate decision I would certainly hope that a teacher would not make,” Bevin, a Republican, said in response to the Facebook Live question.

“But I will say this,” Bevin said. “If you happen to be a teacher who would walk out on your classroom, in order to serve what’s in your own personal best interest at the expense of your children, you probably should retire. I’m being completely serious. If that’s truly where you are at this stage in your career, I wouldn’t suggest that being in a classroom is probably the best use of your time.

“And yet I know for a fact that almost all of you teachers that are watching this don’t think that way.”

Pruitt, in his video to teachers, said that the pension system was a mess and needed to be fixed and he noted that the pension system “has entered the realm of politics.”

“I get the fear. I get the worry,” Pruitt said. He asked teachers to be “thoughtful, to be careful, to not make a life decision based on speculation or conjecture.”

“I need all of our educators in our state to keep a cool head, to keep your head when all those around them may be losing them. To be able to do that will ensure that our kids get the future they deserve.”

Bevin has publicly complained about some teachers and state workers using sick days to potentially increase their retirement benefits.

Pruitt told teachers he knew that they were coming to work on days they were sick or had problems at home because, “there’s a child sitting in the classroom that needs you that day.”

“But you are not coming to work because you are trying to save up sick days for your retirement,” Pruitt said. “I know the kind of work and passion that you put into our children every day, the blood, sweat and tears that you pour into our kids are just invaluable to the lives of those children.”

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