Expanding influence

Expanding influence

Pension debate shows districts advocating on statewide issue

Kentucky School Advocate
November 2017

By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer
From left, state Sen. Dorsey Ridley, a Henderson Democrat, talks with KSBA Governmental Relations Director Eric Kennedy and Henderson County Schools Superintendent Marganna Stanley prior to the start of a school district-hosted forum on pension reform.
Facility planning, nickel taxes and the odd local controversy—these are the more common reasons that school districts in Kentucky occasionally hold public forums. But in the past couple of months, a sprinkling of Kentucky school systems took the initiative and hosted forums not on a narrow local issue but on a statewide issue of historic importance: pension reform.

It’s fair to characterize this as unusual, said Hancock County Superintendent Kyle Estes, whose district teamed up with neighboring Daviess County and Owensboro Independent school systems to sponsor a Sept. 20 forum. “I didn’t think of it at the time, but you don’t really see a lot of that,” he said.

Superintendents in that region have a good working relationship, Estes said. “That really helps all our students at the same time and we can maximize and use our leverage as a group. You can have much greater, broader impact,” he added.
From left, state Sen. Dorsey Ridley, a Henderson Democrat, talks with KSBA Governmental Relations Director Eric Kennedy and Henderson County Schools Superintendent Marganna Stanley prior to the start of a school district-hosted forum on pension reform.

A majority of the area’s legislators attended the session, including Sen. Joe Bowen, co-chair of the Public Pension Oversight Board. It featured a presentation by Beau Barnes, deputy secretary and general counsel of the Teachers’ Retirement System of Kentucky, who has been a fixture at these sessions. For educators and staff of the three districts, it was an opportunity to be educated on the issue and ask questions, Estes said. Some employees in Hancock County, for example, had mistakenly thought the recommendations for pension reform from a consulting group were a bill that would be taken up in an upcoming special legislative session.

“I felt like it had a positive effect, though it’s hard to really gauge that because it is a sensitive topic and no easy solution exists,” Estes said. “I think our representatives acknowledged that and our employees acknowledged that. But at the same time, promises have been made and they’re concerned about where the Commonwealth will stand on those promises in the future.

“If nothing else it put them at ease from the standpoint that difficult questions are being asked and their voice is being heard.”

Estes said he has already invited Bowen to return to talk to school staff and all government employees in Hancock County when a bill is filed, “so hopefully we can continue that kind of approach.”
KSBA Governmental Relations Director Eric Kennedy listens while Beau Barnes, deputy executive secretary and general counsel of the Teachers’ Retirement System, answers a question posed from the audience at a Henderson County Schools-sponsored forum.
Timing is everything
The idea for the northwestern Kentucky forum was sparked by an earlier, similar event that Warren County and Bowling Green Independent districts held.

Warren County Superintendent Rob Clayton was unintentionally prescient when he set the date for the forum hosted by his district. Clayton heard Barnes speak at a statewide superintendents’ gathering earlier in the summer and asked him to make the same presentation about the Teachers’ Retirement System to his district’s educators. It snowballed a bit when Simpson County and Bowling Green and Russellville independent districts were also invited. “The primary purpose for me in the beginning was just to inform our staff,” Clayton explained. “I wanted them to know, here’s the realities of TRS.”

The session at South Warren High school was slated for Sept. 6. The report by a consulting group outlining a series of controversial recommendations for shoring up all the state pension systems was released just a week earlier.

“It turned into a bigger situation,” Clayton said. “After that report, I invited our legislators to come. They were not in my original thinking. We had several attend.” Those lawmakers faced a crowd of about 250 people.
KSBA Governmental Relations Director Eric Kennedy listens while Beau Barnes, deputy
executive secretary and general counsel of the Teachers’ Retirement System, answers
a question posed from the audience at a Henderson County Schools-sponsored forum.

Like Clayton, Henderson County Schools Superintendent Marganna Stanley was motivated by a desire to provide accurate information about the pension issue to the district’s 1,100 employees. The district hosted a forum Sept. 21, also inviting neighboring school systems, with presentations from Barnes and KSBA Governmental Relations Director Eric Kennedy. State Sen. Dorsey Ridley, who represents the area, also briefly addressed the group.

It is more effective to bring in outside experts in this situation, Stanley said. “This particular topic affects every one of our employees. And it can be a life changing kind of decision. It’s a big deal, so I want our people to make decisions based on being able to have the most accurate information, and not make a radical knee-jerk reaction out of fear or out of rumor,” she said.

The session provided a good template for airing consequential issues in the future, Stanley added.

Spreading the word
“I don’t think there’s a doubt that these forums have increased awareness,” Clayton said. “Not just for our legislators in terms of who your decision is going to impact but also our people in the system,” he added.

Stanley said the Henderson forum helped attendees “understand the impact a change could mean to them,” and to communicate that to other employees who did not go to the session, building more momentum. Familiarity with the facts “gives them confidence to have conversations with their legislators,” she said, though as a rule, “Our folks don’t hesitate to share viewpoints,” whether or not they are members of an education group.

Once a pension reform bill is unveiled, Stanley added, “our folks will have specific talking points also.”

Clayton said he encouraged his district’s employees, who tend to rely on district leaders to communicate their message, to make their voices heard in Frankfort. “I feel a strong obligation to not only be that voice but also to encourage them, ‘Don’t let it die.’ At the end of the day, when you’re sitting in the office with a legislator, you’re one person and they need to hear from the masses.”

Board View: “We need to do this more often”

The forum on pension reform jointly hosted by Daviess County, Hancock County and Owensboro Independent districts revealed the depth of the worry that the issue has created among educators, said Mike Clark, chairman of the Daviess County school board.

“I think these forums precipitate a high level of attendance because it affects us, educators,” he said. “When we’re unsettled and we’re uncertain, that brings anxiety. And that was revealed in this session.”

The board’s role in forums such as this is “critically important” said Clark, a retired educator who taught in the Daviess County system and elsewhere.

“I think we have an obligation to make sure that we hear from people and that our legislators in turn know how their constituents feel, what their concerns are,” he said. “If this thing isn’t done right, we can do huge damage to education in Kentucky.”

Clark said he thinks the forum will serve as a springboard for both board member and teacher advocacy.

“We need to do this more often. Teachers work so doggone hard and don’t have time to mess with the peripheral stuff. And we as board members have to look at the big picture and see what the serious things are in front of us or down the road from us. We can provide a vehicle for airing those concerns out."
LEAD on for school officials
During every regular legislative session, school board members and superintendents across Kentucky descend on the Capitol on the same day to meet with their senators and representatives. Besides those face-to-face meetings with lawmakers, the KSBA Legislative Education Advocacy Day (LEAD) gives participants tips on talking with legislators and a briefing on the major issues. Be watching KSBA’s website and social media pages for more information and a date closer to the time of the 2018 session of the General Assembly. (www.ksba.org; Twitter: @ksbanews; Facebook: KSBA
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