Darren Doyle, story and photos:
A little less than 100 Edmonson County School District employees and retirees attended a forum hosted by State Senator Steve Meredith and Representative Michael Lee Meredith yesterday afternoon at ECHS regarding the current status of Kentucky's pension system, one that will directly affect teachers and other school district employees.
Lawmakers have discussed the broken system, which is now reported to become $30 billion underfunded over the next 30 years without an overhaul. School employees have been concerned with Gov. Matt Bevin's comments made regarding the system where he felt like teachers' sick days were being hoarded in an attempt the increase their monthly retirement pay.
Under the current system, teachers can be paid 30% of salaries of unused sick days upon retirement. That can equal to big bucks in a lump payout as a 30-year teacher retires. That amount is also added to their last year's salary total, which will also increase the pay they'll receive for the remainder of their lives.
Both Senator Meredith and Representative Meredith addressed the crowd with opening remarks. Rep. Meredith's wife is a state employee with 10 years current experience, while Sen. Meredith's wife is a retired educator with 31 years of service, making the issue even closer to home for both legislators.
"We hope you all understand that Senator Meredith and I are not looking at this from just a dollars and sense standpoint or that you're just numbers on a page," said the representative. "I know you all are real people and I know you personally."
Senator Meredith apologized for what he called "angst and anxiety" that current teachers are experiencing with the different discussions floating around. "I have nothing but respect for the job you all do and I know it's a thankless job. I can tell you, there's not a person in Frankfort that doesn't want to resolve this."
Over the course of the hour and a half meeting, several current teachers, some new, some nearing retirement, and others already retired, asked questions about reduction of Medicare benefits, the sick day issue, and the continuing reduction of state funding for Edmonson County Schools.
Overall, the answers from both the Senator and Representative addressed those questions as the talk was simply rumor at this point and that no concrete proposal had yet been made.
"I know a lot of people, because of the anxiety that comes with this, are making decisions about their career too soon," said Sen. Meredith. "If you've been in the system for a while or are already retired, I promise you, it's going to be ok. Short of another downturn in the economy like we had in 2007-08, and if that happens, we're all going to be sunk, or something like North Korea hitting us with a nuclear missile, don't worry about it. We're going to be ok, and it's a commitment that I think we're very secure in making."
He also addressed others not near the retirement age who he described as "in limbo" and said that if major changes were made in an upcoming special session, likely to be held at the end of October or early November, those changes wouldn't take effect until July of 2018 or possibly even longer than that.
Other teachers discussed how they'd heard that the current system could be completely overhauled and would be replaced by a more common 401K and Social Security-type fund, which most seemed to oppose.
"This would be very expensive for the state and it's only been talked about, nothing more," said Rep. Meredith. "These are valid concerns, but again, you're hearing worse case scenarios, and at this point, they're only rumors. Any changes made would be manageable."
As the meeting closed, both legislators both discussed their support of today's educators, especially those in Edmonson County.
"Teachers are very much respected in both the House and Senate," said Sen. Meredith.
Rep. Meredith echoed the same. "I know that the majority of the House feel strongly about our teachers, but we all see that there have to be some changes made. It would be irresponsible to say we can just leave it alone, but we're going to be very respectful of your needs."
Teachers seemed to be relieved as the meeting closed and Superintendent Patrick Waddell felt like the meeting went very well.
"I thought the staff had some excellent questions and I feel they received the proper answers from both Representative Meredith and Senator Meredith," Waddell said. "When the news and talk came out a few weeks ago that there could be some big changes coming to the retirement system, it got everyone excited, and we're still concerned about a new or hybrid system for new staff being put in place, but I think everyone understands we're in a situation where something has to be changed. At this point, it does seem that both Michael and Steve are doing the best job they can to take of us."
Rep. Michael Lee Meredith told the Edmonson Voice that he fully understands that people are concerned.
"And I don't blame them one bit," he added. "There are tough questions we can't fully answer yet but hopefully we'll have them soon. I think the thing to take away from tonight is that anytime we can get information out to the people, that's a good thing. We have the backs of not only our teachers, but all our state workers. This is not an easy process. Neither Senator Meredith nor I were here (in government) when this problem was created, but we're dealing with it on the backside. We're trying to keep everyone's retirement intact while knowing that some changes have to be made."
Senator Steve Meredith said that while the subject matter is serious and some of the questions were tough, they were also quite appropriate.
"We need to hear from folks, we need to hear these questions, and I was well pleased with how this went tonight. Education is the foundation of everything we do in this state and we can't afford to discount it and the contributions our teachers are making to the lives of our young people. They're inspirations and role models and we have to do everything we can to support them."
**correction: an earlier version of this story listed Rep. Meredith's wife as a teacher, which was incorrect. She is a state employee in the same retirement system as a teacher. The story was corrected at 9/29/27 at 4:53pm.