Kentucky State Capitol

Kentucky State Capitol

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Attorney General Andy Beshear sued the Kentucky Labor Cabinet on Monday after the agency rejected his request to rescind its subpoenas to 10 school districts affected by “sick outs” this year.

Beshear, a Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, announced the lawsuit during a news conference in Frankfort on Monday. The Jefferson County Teachers Association joined the legal action in Franklin Circuit Court, he said.

Kentucky's public school teachers, Beshear said, are "under direct attack." He said without actual labor disputes in play, the sick out protests shouldn't be considered strikes or work stoppages, which are illegal for public employees.

Because of that, Beshear contends that the Labor Cabinet should not be investigating the sick outs. The matter should be between teachers and the school districts that employ them, he said.

"Today we are taking the action to stop these attacks on teachers and to stop these attacks on public education," he said. "This type of retaliation, intimidation and threats by a governor and his administration must not be allowed.

"The bully pulpit was never meant to bully, and I'm not going to let him use it."

Gov. Matt Bevin called Beshear's lawsuit "an absolute stunt" and the attorney general himself "an embarrassment to Kentucky." 

"It's remarkable to me how incompetent, how corrupt, how remarkably unwilling to do his job our attorney general is, and I cannot wait for the state of Kentucky, for this commonwealth to have somebody who will actually do the job of attorney general because we don't have such a person right now," Bevin told reporters after ceremonially signing a bill that would bar abortions based on medical condition, sex or race.

The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the measure in court, and Bevin noted that Beshear is not defending the newly passed law.

Labor Cabinet Secretary David Dickerson declined Beshear’s request to rescind subpoenas sent to 10 school districts, including Jefferson County Public Schools, by his agency’s inspector general. 

A number JCPS teachers shut down the state's largest school district six times in a two-week period during this year's legislative session, joining nine other districts that shut down at least once to voice their opposition to bills that would alter the election process for Kentucky Teachers Retirement System trustees, legalize scholarship tax credits and allow the JCPS superintendent to hire principals instead of school councils.

The cabinet, which can issue up to $1,000 in civil penalties, is investigating whether the sick outs, which occur when enough teachers asked to take leave to trigger school district closures, constitute an illegal work stoppage under state law.

Haley Bradburn, the cabinet's communications director, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. 

The Kentucky Department of Education originally sought similar information in hopes to ending sick outs at the local level, but the agency took no punitive steps against school districts after they complied with his requests.

Beshear warned Dickerson after receiving the letter that he would take legal action. He told reporters that he's seeking a temporary injunction to prevent districts from responding to the subpoenas as well as a May 6 hearing.

The cabinet asked districts to provide the requested information, including the names of teachers who requested sick leave in advance of the closures, by 9 a.m. May 10.

Beshear speculated that the subpoenas were meant to intimidate teachers ahead of a special session that's expected to be called before July 1. Bevin vetoed a bill that would have allowed quasi-governmental agencies to exit the Kentucky Retirement Systems, which he said he hoped lawmakers would reconsider in a special session.

JCTA President Brent McKim also believed the subpoenas were meant to "chill" public school teachers who want to protest at the Capitol. JCTA did not endorse the sick outs and instead struck a deal with JCPS to allow teachers to serve as legislative delegates during the session.

"It was not a method that we recommended, but it was for the right reasons and it was, we believe, protected First Amendment speech," McKim said.

Blake Brickman, Bevin’s chief of staff, said in a statement that Beshear “is, unsurprisingly, more concerned about politics than the law.”

“His fear-mongering rhetoric about fining teachers is false, and no such decision has been made or will be made until after the Office of the Inspector General completes its lawful investigation,” Brickman said in a statement. “Even the KEA advised its members that they could face legal repercussions for ‘sick outs.’”

Beshear reiterated his stance that the sick outs did not constitute as strikes or work stoppages, noting that a federal court ruled in favor of teachers who staged similar sick outs in Detroit.

"They said as long as teachers in a sick out are protesting overall funding for public education or issues related to the public education system in general, then it is protected First Amendment speech, and that is the only case directly related to what's happened here," Beshear said.

Beshear called Brickman's criticism "rich."

"This is a governor who has used state resources to bully people and to further his own political agenda and to attack political enemies almost every day of his administration," he said.

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