Former local teacher talks about Kentucky teachers' protests

Brandon Paykamian • Apr 11, 2018 at 9:11 AM

When Scott Evans left Northeast Tennessee in 2013 after years of teaching in Johnson City and Washington County, he was excited about returning to Kentucky to teach in his home state.

But after Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin signed a pension reform bill that passed the state Senate and House by the end of March, Evans and his colleagues in Knott County were worried about the state’s plans to raise teachers’ health care costs and do away with defined and guaranteed retirement and benefit plans for public employees.

Evans said he and others went to Frankfort to protest at the state’s Capitol last Monday, where about 100 other teachers from Knott County Schools and thousands from other districts joined them. Since then, the wave of protests and walkouts shut down many of the state’s schools.

“This is about an attack on public schools,” Evans said. “I wanted to go home and help my state. I was born and raised in Kentucky. But if this goes through, that sentiment will be gone among many incoming teachers.”

Johnson City Schools officials would not comment on the teachers’ movements across the country, but Washington County Schools Assistant Director William Flanary said he believes the situation is a bit different in this region and in Tennessee as a whole.

“Certainly we are watching with interest what is happening in other states. Having said that, we don't foresee such an occurrence in Tennessee,” Flanary wrote in an emailed statement. “For one thing, Governor Haslam has put millions into education in the last three budgets. Our retirement system, Tennessee Consolidated Retirement, is one of the best funded in the nation.

“Finally, Tennessee Code Annotated 49-5-606 specifically makes it illegal for a professional employee's organization, such as a teacher's union, to engage in a strike.”

But the recent mobilization of Kentucky’s teachers, inspired by the recent wildcat teacher strikes in Oklahoma and the victory of West Virginia's teachers who won a 5 percent raise last month, is a risky move for Kentucky’s teachers as well, according to Evans.

“The teachers here are scared. Many don’t want to take a day off and face ramifications,” Evans said. “Without a union, we rely on Facebook and talking with each other in the hallways (to organize).”

Rather than demanding pay raises for their district in Kentucky, Evans, who claimed he recently used his tax refund for new school supplies and replacing outdated textbooks, said teachers in Kentucky are now simply hoping to retain their original contracts.

Evans said the state’s teachers’ organizing efforts are still working to build up its numbers. Despite a large showing in Frankfort last week, Evans said many involved in the recent teachers’ movement feel as if they’re fighting an uphill battle.

As of Tuesday, the protests among Kentucky’s teachers continued to gain more momentum. Bevin has warned teachers that another mass walkout would be “irresponsible.”

“It’s hard not to be pessimistic, but when I stood in the Capitol building, I would estimate there was 3,000 in there,” Evans said last week. “They certainly heard our voices, but they just decided to ignore them.”

The movement among teachers in Kentucky and other red states like Oklahoma has been described as a “wildfire” by many national media outlets. With state congressional and gubernatorial elections looming in Tennessee, Evans said there’s always the possibility of future legislative proposals much like the bill in Kentucky.

Teachers in Johnson City Schools currently make an average salary of about $57,000 a year, while the Washington County teacher’s salary stands at about $46,000.

In some of the most impoverished Kentucky counties, like Knott County, the situation is a bit different. Many teachers there make about at least $12,000 less than the average Kentucky public school teacher, who makes about $52,000.

Evans believes this, coupled with the state’s new bill, could jeopardize teachers’ pension plans and has pushed educators in Kentucky’s poorest districts to their breaking point.

Evans said he believes this recent wave of economic populism among teachers could spread elsewhere if conditions are right, even in places like Tennessee, where teachers could face even stricter ramifications for organizing.

“The teachers I worked with in Johnson City and Washington County were some of the best teachers I’ve experienced. They’re amazing at what they do, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see that, if they had these same situations put in front of them, their actions would be the same — to stand up for their students, families and what is right,” Evans said.


Average teacher salaries in our local districts: 

Johnson City Schools $57,363.08
Bristol City Schools $54,507.72
Kingsport City Schools $52,652.78
Sullivan County Schools $46,427.98
Washington County Schools $45,865.62
Unicoi County Schools $45,102.99
Elizabethton City Schools  $44,936.56
Carter County Schools $42,937.86
Johnson County Schools $41,796.63

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