FRANKFORT, Ky. — Thousands of angry teachers rallied Friday at the state Capitol as lawmakers returned for the final days of their legislative session, some chanting, "What do we want? Funding! When do we want it? Now!"
At a rally on the Capitol steps, the state's Democratic secretary of state and attorney general gave fiery speeches focused on turning the movement into political action at the ballot box and on a lawsuit that Attorney General Andy Beshear filed this week against a pension-reform bill that was introduced and passed both houses in less than nine hours. Hundreds of others waited in a security line to enter the Capitol.
What the controversial bill didn't do: shore up a state employees' pension system that has less than a third of the money on hand that it needs to pay retirees.
"Are you tired of a budget that is balanced on the back of education, especially higher education? Are you tired of a pension bill that is attached to a sewer bill?" said Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state.
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"And are you tired of a tax bill that increases taxes for 95% of Kentuckians while cutting it for corporations?" she asked.
Teachers requesting absences to travel to Frankfort forced the closures of at least 39 school districts, including the state's largest in Louisville and Lexington. Four additional counties, which included the third largest in the state, were on spring break.
Nancy Peden, a fourth-grade teacher in Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, said she has been most disappointed with the lack of transparency this legislative session.
"(Lawmakers) treat us like mushrooms," Peden said. "They keep us in the dark and then feed us a bunch of crap."
Starting in January 2017, for the first time ever, Republicans control both houses of the Kentucky's legislature. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin also is a Republican.
The Kentucky Education Association, the statewide teachers union, has called for lawmakers to override Bevin's vetoes of the two-year state budget and tax bills, warning that should a special session be called, the he would be able to encourage a budget worse for public education.
On Monday, Bevin chided teachers on their activism, saying that they've been very vocal but not part of a solution. He also called the possibility of a walkout irresponsible and a mistake.
Friday's rally in Frankfort is not a walkout nor a strike. The union asked teachers who were able to use personal leave time to join the protest.
On Tuesday, he further zeroed in on the Kentucky Education Association.
"They're phonies. They're not even sincere," Bevin told WHAS-AM, Louisville.
On Friday outside his office at the Capitol were signs in at least two locations criticizing the teachers union.
"Everyone came here for the same reason, to get the funding we need," said teacher Randy Bishop of Owen County, just north of Frankfort.
At least a dozen other groups that have joined together as the Kentucky Public Pension Coalition say they're supporting the teachers and specifically are against the pension-reform bill, which Bevin signed Tuesday. Among the coalition's members are Jefferson County Teachers Association, the Kentucky Retired Teachers Association, the Kentucky State Fraternal Order of Police and the Kentucky State AFL-CIO.
"When we vote in November, we need to remember what happened here in this session," Louisville Fire Capt. Brian O'Neill said. "We need to elect people who will have the courage to actually represent the people of Kentucky."