FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- Hundreds of Kentucky teachers called in sick Friday to protest last-minute changes to their pension system, forcing nearly two dozen districts to close while angry educators rallied outside the governor's office to demand he not sign the bill.
With thunderous chants of "shut it down" echoing throughout the Capitol Rotunda, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear used a megaphone to announce he would sue to block the bill's implementation if Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signs it into law.
Bevin had not signed the bill as of Friday afternoon. Thursday night, he tweeted public employees owe lawmakers a "debt of gratitude" for passing the bill.
The show of force comes amid growing unrest among public educators nationwide, led by thousands of West Virginia teachers who walked off the job for nine days earlier this year to secure a 5 percent pay raise. Teacher unrest spread to another deep red state in Oklahoma, where the GOP-led legislature approved money for teacher raises and more school funding. Teachers are mulling whether the current offer from lawmakers is enough to avert a work stoppage.
Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler said the union did not organize Friday's school closures, saying "I can't control what teachers do."
"I support their right to call in sick if they are ill, and they are sick," Winkler said during a news conference at KEA headquarters, prompting some teachers in the crowd to begin coughing.
Jefferson County officials in Louisville, one of the largest school districts in the country, said they couldn't get enough substitutes to cover all their classes Friday. In Fayette County, officials said more than a third of school employees in the Lexington district were staying home.
North of Lexington, the Scott County school district called off classes. It said on Facebook that since the bill's passage, dozens of teachers requested substitutes to fill in for them Friday.
"We can currently only fill 54 of the nearly 150 that we need," the statement said. "That leaves too many classes not covered, which causes a situation that is unsafe and unproductive for students and staff."
Winkler said a statewide work stoppage is still an option. The union is planning a rally Monday at the state capitol when much of the state is on spring break and lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene to possibly vote on a two-year operating budget.
"If this budget is not in the best interest of public education students and public service then we will react," Winkler said.
Kentucky's pension system is among the worst-funded in the country. The state is at least $41 billion short of the money it needs to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years, placing a strain on state and local government finances.
On Thursday night, the state legislature passed a bill that preserves most benefits for current public workers. But it would require all new teachers to use a hybrid plan that does not guarantee them a set pension amount when they retire. Instead, they would live off the money accumulated in their accounts from contributions and investment returns, which would be guaranteed not to lose money.
"Why would anybody go into teaching now in the state of Kentucky," asked Whitney Walker, a government teacher at Lafayette High School in Fayette County, the state's second-largest district that was forced to close Friday. "We need good teachers, not just anybody who would walk in the door."
Beshear, a potential candidate for governor in 2019, said the bill violates the state's inviolable contract by freezing the accumulation of sick days to boost retirement benefits. Winkler said the KEA supports Beshear and will join him in any potential lawsuit. But Republicans who support the bill noted a proposal the KEA supported included similar language.
Another option would be to challenge the way lawmakers passed the bill. A state law requires the bill to have a financial analysis before passing. But acting House Speaker David Osborne said the Supreme Court has interpreted that law as a House rule, which lawmakers can suspend at any time.