Here's what happened last night:
KEA officials debate whether to push for day of protest, strike
By Nancy C. Rodriguez
By Stewart Bowman, The Courier-Journal
FRANKFORT, Ky.-Leaders of the Kentucky Education Association debated past midnight whether to call for a day of protest that would close schools Sept. 27 and a full-fledged strike in October or February.
The teachers union's crisis committee deliberated most of the afternoon before presenting a list of recommendations to its board of directors, which went into closed session from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. before publicly debating the proposals.
Calling for Gov. Ernie Fletcher to convene a special legislative session to adopt a budget that adequately funds education and restores health insurance benefits that would be cut this year under a plan Fletcher released to reduce costs.
Urging local teachers unions to request that their superintendents and school boards close school on Sept. 27, the first scheduled day of open enrollment in the state's controversial health insurance plan.
School employees would spend the day protesting rising insurance costs and education funding-but only if their district officials agree to call off classes for the day.
Calling for an open-ended statewide strike in October or during the next legislative session next year.
Crisis committee member Brent McKim, who is the president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said the strike would continue until health benefits were restored and education was adequately funded.
It is illegal for school workers to strike in Kentucky. Those who do could face action from their local school boards, including being fired-consequences that KEA officials said weighed heavily on them.
If the KEA does call for a strike, it would be up to the individual district teachers unions to determine whether to carry through with the proposal.
"It's a very serious debate that not only affects our 29,000 members, but also their families," KEA spokesman Charles Main said.
Fletcher, whose health-care changes ignited the strike debate, said yesterday in a statement that he would not negotiate with the statewide teachers association if it "promotes an illegal strike."
"No illegal strike or other organized job action can be justified," Fletcher said. "I am concerned and compassionate about the impact of health insurance costs on all state employees and teachers. An illegal strike or work stoppage would be harmful to our children."
Some back bold steps
Still, some KEA members said such action is needed, in part because an informal poll by the association showed that 80 percent of its members support a strike.
Teachers and school workers who attend last night's board meeting said they must take bold action for the community and governor to understand the gravity of the situation.
"A teacher can't do anything more than to say I'm risking my entire career to communicate that this is not something that's in the interest of our students in the commonwealth," McKim said.
Sentiment for some form of work stoppage had been growing since Sept. 7, when Fletcher released a new state health-insurance plan that imposes deductibles on state employees and requires them to pay a percentage of doctor and prescription costs instead of a fixed co-payment. It also raises monthly premiums and out-of-pocket costs for many employees, depending on the coverage they select, and limits employees to one insurance provider.
About 171,000 public employees and retirees are covered by state health insurance. Adding dependents and spouses, the number rises to about 229,000.
Without the changes, Fletcher has said the price tag for providing health insurance benefits would reach nearly $1billion by 2006, and the cost to some employees would have increased by as much as 25 percent.
Fletcher said he would attempt to ease the increases by providing a 1 percent raise in January in addition to a 2 percent raise this fiscal year.
"What makes this situation even more frustrating is that the problem of escalating health-care costs has been neglected for so long by previous administrations," Fletcher said in his statement. "I want teachers and teacher unions to work with my administration toward the goal of parity of teacher compensation with the surrounding states."
But union officials say the rising health-care costs come on top of insurance premiums that already are unreasonably high for Kentucky teachers.
They point to an analysis this year by the National Conference on State Legislatures that shows that in 2003 Kentucky teachers paid a larger share of their monthly premiums for family plans than teachers in any other state.
Among the strike's most ardent supporters is the Jefferson County Teachers
Association, whose delegates voted unanimously last week to have the KEA call for a strike Sept. 30.
McKim said the goal of the work stoppage is to persuade Fletcher to work with school employees and state workers to find a better solution to the state's mounting health-care costs.
The Kentucky Retired Teachers Association, which represents 23,000 retirees in the state, also called on Fletcher yesterday to work with it to find an alternative to his plan.
A largely symbolic action
KEA officials acknowledged yesterday that a one-day work stoppage would be largely symbolic, noting that they expect several school districts to schedule their protests on personal or training days, when students aren't in school.
In other districts, school boards might work with employees and close school for one day. Districts then would make up that missed time by adding it to the end of the school year.
The KEA last staged a statewide teacher strike in February 1970 over education funding and teacher salaries. A court order ended the strike.
Brenda Hutchinson, president of the Bullitt County Teachers Association, said a strike is needed because lobbying and letter-writing campaigns have not persuaded the legislature or governor to make changes.
"We do not take this lightly," said Hutchinson, who teaches at Brooks Elementary School. "As teachers and as support professionals we believe that our students are the reason that we're in this profession, and we care about our students. But we have families also. And at this time we're having to say that we have to take care of our families."
Hutchinson said there are bus drivers, cafeteria workers and teacher assistants in her district and around the state whose school salaries do not cover their health insurance costs. Those workers, she said, often have to work second jobs to cover that expense.
Others at last night's meeting, however, were less certain a strike was the right move.
Some support more lobbying. They noted a plan offered Thursday by Senate Republicans that would raise all school and state employee salaries $600 this year, lower drug costs for those with many prescriptions, create new health spending accounts and increase the cost-of-living adjustment for retired teachers.
Fletcher hasn't said whether he would support the plan.
Staff writer Chris Kenning contributed to this story.