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Educators wave signs at the based of the House steps on March 12, 2019.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- Despite a protest that drew hundreds of Jefferson County Public Schools teachers to the Capitol, Kentucky’s House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday that would grant broader spending and personnel authority to JCPS superintendents.

The legislation, Senate Bill 250, now heads to Gov. Matt Bevin’s desk for his signature or veto after the 54-42 vote. If it becomes law, SB 250 will allow Pollio and his successors to override principal selections by school-based decision making councils, enter contracts worth up to $20,000 and demote administrators.

The bill was one of three that prompted about a third of JCPS teachers to call in absences and close school so they could rally in Frankfort. While hundreds crammed the Capitol on Tuesday, a smaller group stayed and chanted at the steps of the House chamber as lawmakers debated and voted on SB 250.

It marked the fourth time in less than two weeks that such “sick outs” have closed JCPS, and officials are keeping close watch on unfilled absences for Wednesday and Thursday, the last legislative days before the veto recess.

House Majority Floor Leader John “Bam” Carney said the legislation would give JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio the flexibility needed to fix issues at Kentucky’s largest school district, which still faces the prospect of state management after the end of its settlement agreement with the Kentucky Department of Education in 2020.

“This is a step to kind of help prevent that,” said Carney, R-Campbellsville.

But House Minority Whip Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, said while Pollio might be popular, he won’t be in charge of JCPS forever, “and this bill is forever.”

She also offered a warning for those who represent other areas of Kentucky.

“I also know having been here for 25 years, when something gets started in Jefferson County, don’t look at the rearview mirror because it’s coming your way,” Jenkins said.

SB 250 crossed the legislative finish line to Bevin’s desk, but two other bills are on far shakier ground.

House Majority Floor Leader John “Bam” Carney, R-Campbellsville, told the Lexington Herald Leader that his scholarship tax credit bill is “unlikely for this session,” and key supporters of the measure also signaled House Bill 205’s likely demise Tuesday. Teachers fear the credits could be included in a tax bill being negotiated by lawmakers.

“We are extremely disappointed in the lack of movement of House Bill 205, legislation to create a Scholarship Tax Credit program in Kentucky,” EdChoice Kentucky President Charles Leis said in a statement. “The legislation would level the playing field by allowing private entities to fund financial aid for vulnerable Kentucky students to attend the school that is best for their individual needs.”

On the second bill, Rep. Ken Upchurch, R-Monticello, has filed a floor amendment to his bill that would alter the makeup and election process for Kentucky Teachers Retirement System trustees, essentially stripping House Bill 525 of its language and directing lawmakers to study the issue during this year’s interim.

Beyond their legislative concerns, some teachers who spoke to WDRB News say Gov. Matt Bevin’s comments Monday critical of JCPS teachers calling out absent likely hastened the closure of JCPS.

Bevin said in his video that teachers have “no reason to be walking out on students, leaving students in the lurch, hurting them and their parents and the many businesses in Kentucky that are affected by this.”

Steve Farris, a teacher at Jefferson County Traditional Middle School, said he watched the number of unfilled absences surge after Bevin’s video hit social media. Within an hour or two of the video, Farris said 500 more teachers had called out Monday night.

“The numbers spiked very quickly,” Farris said as he waited in line for a House gallery pass.

Cathy Smith, also a JCTMS teacher, said Tuesday’s closure was “in direct correlation” to the governor’s video.

Smith said if she felt like she could trust lawmakers not to repeat last year’s “sewer bill” – a pension reform measure that was inserted in a wastewater bill , passed by the General Assembly in hours and ultimately struck down by the Kentucky Supreme Court on procedural grounds – or completely amend legislation to insert items like stripping SBDM councils of their principal hiring authority, she might not be in Frankfort.

“We obviously cannot trust them not to throw a wrench somewhere, throw in an addendum to something else,” Smith said.

Kris Tatro, a math teacher at duPont Manual High School, said this year’s legislative session has made her more engaged in the political and legislative process. She and Laura Moore, a fellow Manual teacher, were busy making signs near the steps of the House just before the lower chamber gaveled in on Tuesday.

Teachers, she said, have “reached a legitimate boiling point.” For her, the tipping point was seeing yellow-scarfed supporters of the scholarship tax credit bill at the Capitol urging lawmakers to pass the legislation.

Tatro says she plans to support whichever Democrat emerges from a crowded primary field to oppose Bevin in this year’s gubernatorial election, something she also didn’t expect when lawmakers gaveled in this year’s session.

“I’ve always said I’m an independent,” she said. “I don’t have a party affiliation because I’ll vote for whoever I think is the best candidate. I am done with that because I’m going to campaign for whoever runs against Matt Bevin.”

Teachers who spoke to WDRB News say it’s likely that JCPS will be out until Friday. Lawmakers will be in Frankfort through Thursday.

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Education Reporter