Bellevue Ind. superintendent says in blog letter to governor legislative neglect, recession - not teachers - are to blame for the current pension crisis

River City News, Covington, Aug. 30, 2017

Bellevue Superintendent: Governor, Don't Blame Educators for Pension Mess

Dear Governor Bevin,

As a 22-year veteran of Kentucky’s public education system, I have followed with earnest the increasingly dismal outlook provided by TRS forecasters. Allow me to frame this letter with the acknowledgement that our pension system is flawed and/or broken. I know it is. We, the public educators in the state, know it is.

The underlying reasons for the decline in our system are many: legislative neglect, longer life spans, and a recession to name a few. Regardless, the finger-pointing need not overshadow the solutions. I can tell you who is NOT at fault—those of us who, in trust and good faith, signed up for a retirement system at the onset of our careers. Please turn your finger away from us.

My mother began her career in Kentucky public education in 1970 earning a salary of less than $4000. She worked in our great Commonwealth for over 30 years. She is now 68 with lots of life left. She does not live in a gated community, does not drive a fancy car, and does not take lavish vacations. At 21, she knew wealth would never be in her future. She did it anyway.

Following my mother’s example, I signed my first contract in 1995 with a salary around $28,000. This is much less than my friends earned, who graduated college with degrees in other areas, and barely enough to fashion a life of my own. I tell you this not to play the martyr, because I am just one of thousands who agreed to these terms. I tell you this because, like all educators, we knew of the modest life in front of us, and we did it anyway.

You may not know this, but our degrees and our certificates become worthless unless we complete graduate programs. These are mandatory and are at OUR expense.  Full-time jobs, involvement in extra-curricular activities at minimal compensation, graduate classes, and trying to start families characterize a teacher in his or her late 20s and early 30s. Sounds fun, no? We did it anyway.

Mr. Bevin, despite these flaws to public education, generations of Kentuckians have chosen teaching as a profession. The compensation for spending our professional lives giving back to our communities has always been relative comfort in retirement. Most give over 30 years to the cause and only hope to get 30 more after it is over, albeit at a much lower rate.

There are no absolutes when dealing with humans, but I can confidently say 99 percent of the people with whom I have worked, and there are hundreds, are not the greed-fueled personalities you have referenced in your speeches. The professionals in our schools are altruistic in motivation and pure in practice. To characterize them as anything else is irresponsible and unjust. To say they are anything but compassionate and dedicated is to distort the truth.

Politics aside, the future of democracy and the sanctity of the Commonwealth rests firmly in public education. There is no tool in the history of humankind greater than our public schools. The services we deliver to our communities ensure opportunities for equality and fairness. You cannot put a price on this investment, Governor.

Behind the brick and mortar facades are schools full of the toughest, most resilient people I have ever known. I am a better educator and person because of these people. There are hundreds of thousands of students who are educated contributors to society because of these people. Despite attacks on our achievement, our character, and our motivation, we persist. Public education is an easy scapegoat. We get it. We knew this going in, but we did it anyway.

As I mentioned earlier, Mr. Bevin, we know the retirement system needs work. Why it needs work is much less important than the bi-partisan effort that it will take to fix it. Let me emphasize that those of us working in public service are neither the problem nor the enemy. If we have to give a little, fine. We have been giving our entire careers. I just ask that you honor the retirement terms we agreed to as beginning teachers and that you involve our organizations in discussions of any potential concessions.

As dire as the situation may be, I am optimistic that a viable solution exists. You have an opportunity here, Governor, to show the nation the fortitude and resolve of the people of Kentucky. I trust that you will take that responsibility seriously and work for the interests of the children and teachers in our public schools.

Sincerely,

Robb Smith

Superintendent, Bellevue Independent Schools

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