Interim Kentucky education commissioner says vote by JCPS board to relinquish $15M Head Start grant 'raises serious questions'

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis has asked Jefferson County Public Schools and other districts to provide listings of every teacher who called out sick on days when enough educators took absences to trigger “sick outs.”

Lewis filed the request Thursday with JCPS and districts in Fayette, Oldham, Bullitt, Marion, Madison, Letcher, Carter, Boyd and Bath Counties, according to a release from the Kentucky Department of Education.

Lewis has asked for the records – which cover Feb. 28, March 5-7 and Tuesday through Thursday – by Monday, along with the districts’ sick leave policies any affidavits or doctor’s notes submitted by those who received sick time.

Lewis said he “takes the closing of schools very seriously,” and the Kentucky Department of Education plans to use the data to review whether districts and teachers were following the law. The commissioner has access to teacher records and can report any legal issues to the Kentucky Board of Education, who can then forward violations to local prosecutors.

“While it is important that administrators, teachers and students make their voices heard about issues related to public education policy, advocacy should under no circumstances be putting a stop to learning for entire communities,” he said in a statement.

“Most Kentucky districts have managed to make that avenue available without work stoppages and have continued to serve students.”

Lewis’s request came on the sixth “sick out” at JCPS as the General Assembly wraps up work on bills in this year’s legislative session.

Teachers first closed districts throughout central and eastern Kentucky Feb. 28 to protest House Bill 525, which would have altered the makeup and election process for the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System’s board of trustees.

That protest was called by the grassroots group KY 120 United, which emerged during last year’s demonstrations by teachers against a pension reform bill passed by the legislature that was later overturned by the Kentucky Supreme Court on procedural grounds.

An offshoot group, JCPS Leads, formed in the days afterward as local teachers expanded their misgivings against lawmakers to include bills allowing scholarship tax credits and giving the JCPS superintendent broader power over spending and personnel.

Some in the Facebook group, including administrators, have encouraged teachers to force Kentucky’s largest school district to close in the “sick outs.”

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio and Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim had hoped to avoid the closures through a proposal announced last week that would have allowed each school to send delegates to the Capitol on a rotating basis. Many teachers who spoke to WDRB News this week said they had signed up to serve as delegates.

While JCPS has been closed since Tuesday, some administrators urged teachers to take off Monday as well as lawmakers held committee meetings but neither the House nor Senate gaveled in. Some in the group changed their Facebook profile pictures to a graphic with the phrase “Tuesday is too late!”

Although most of bills that drew teachers' ire have fizzled toward the end of the session, Senate Bill 250 is on Gov. Matt Bevin's desk for his signature or veto after clearing the House on a 54-42 vote Tuesday. SB 250 will let Pollio and his successors power to approve principals selected by school-based decision making councils or hire his own pick; demote administrative staff without allowing them to appeal; and enter contracts worth up to $20,000 without school board approval.

Despite assurances by four Louisville lawmakers, including three in leadership, that no bills including scholarship tax credits or KTRS board reforms would pass in the final two days of the legislative session, JCPS teachers continued their “sick out” Thursday, the last day before the veto break.

Ivonne Rovira, an administrator in JCPS Leads, said teachers still didn’t trust legislators after last year’s “sewer bill” that carried pension reform past the legislative finish line in just a day – a process deemed illegal by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

“They still have sewer bill (post-traumatic stress disorder),” Rovira said of teachers.

Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, said he understood teachers’ mistrust.

“There is a party in charge in Frankfort,” he said. “That party last year ran a sewer bill through in the middle of the night that gutted teachers’ pensions. That causes this distrust. We’re going to have to work to regain it, and that won’t happen overnight.”

But others were clearly frustrated with Thursday’s “sick out,” including Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville.

“There must be a reaction to stop this kind of thing,” he said. “It’s not going to become the normal. It is the new normal.”

KEA, through a request by JCTA, gave the local union a legal opinion that said teachers could face disciplinary action by districts for taking sick time and protesting in Frankfort, even if their school systems are shut down. McKim told WDRB News he had heard nothing from JCPS administrators about any potential disciplinary action.

However, KEA President Stephanie Winkler said Thursday evening that forcing teachers to "choose between keeping their livelihood and and exercising their constitutional rights is despicable."

"We hope that all superintendents recognize that such a show of political force by public employees is a gesture of support for public school students, parents, school boards and school administrators all across the state," Winkler said in a statement.

Lawmakers return to Frankfort from the veto break March 28 for the final day of this year's legislative session.

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