Teachers wait to enter the Capitol on March 7, 2019.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Members of the Jefferson County Teachers Association may be getting up to 10 extra days of leave during this year’s legislative session, according to an agreement on Tuesday’s Jefferson County Board of Education meeting agenda.

JCTA President Brent McKim told WDRB News on Friday that the proposal, part of a broader agreement between the union and the school board, is meant to give educators an opportunity to participate in the legislative process “that would not require closing schools.”

Jefferson County Public Schools closed six times in a two-week period during last year’s General Assembly as many educators requested sick leave so they could protest various education-related bills on matters like scholarship tax credits, changes to the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System board and giving JCPS superintendents authority to hire principals rather than school-based councils. Only the latter became law.

“That’s not to say that closing schools is never called for, but it’s good for our members to have options available to them, including ones where they can have a voice in Frankfort without necessarily causing students and their families to have to deal with school closures,” McKim said.

The union’s council of building representatives approved the proposal, which McKim said had been discussed with JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio, during a meeting Wednesday, he said.

The deal, if approved, would give JCTA up to 10 additional days of association leave to dole out to its membership during the session. Schools could send one JCTA member for every 20 in the building under the proposal, and the school board could provide additional leave time if necessary.

It would also allow JCTA to spread out the leave to help mitigate the impact on district classrooms, McKim said. That means instead of every school sending union members to Frankfort together on a single day, buildings could send teachers to the Capitol on different days without going over the 10-day leave limit.

“There are some issues that are important and teachers may feel strongly that they need to have a presence in Frankfort, but not necessarily every issue rises to the level of needing to close schools for everyone,” he said.

With roughly 6,000 members, the teachers’ union can provide association leave to some 300 teachers for 10 days, if the proposal passes muster with the school board.

McKim said the proposed agreement provides more proportional representation for schools compared to last year’s delegate plan, which was developed late in the session amid growing concern over “sickouts” late in the session and allowed schools to send up to three JCTA members to Frankfort regardless of staff size.

That delegate plan, however, did little to keep JCPS teachers from triggering “sickouts” until the session’s final day last year.

McKim believes JCTA can get more buy-in from its membership under this proposal, if approved, given the timing of its rollout. Lawmakers gaveled in this year’s session on Jan 7.

“It gives us time to plan in advance,” he said.

With up to 10 days of legislative leave on the table for JCTA members, McKim says teachers have an opportunity to have “a strong presence” at the Capitol this year.

He expects other school districts to have similar plans in place for this year’s session.

“If the legislature tries to move a scholarship tax credit bill, I think schools from all over the commonwealth would have educators come to Frankfort to engage on an issue like that,” McKim said. “Our 200 or 300 would be joined by hundreds from across the state.”

JCPS did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the proposal.

“Sickouts” have been a source of controversy in Kentucky, particularly last year.

Former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s Labor Cabinet investigated the school district closures as illegal work stoppages, ultimately determining in August that 1,074 teachers broke the law by participating. David Dickerson, the former cabinet secretary, said he would not pursue penalties of $1,000 per violation at the time, but that would not be the case in future “sickouts.”

But Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who leaned heavily on public education in his gubernatorial campaign against Bevin, reversed that stance on Dec. 30.

Labor Cabinet Secretary Larry Roberts determined in a letter that day that teachers who participated in the “sickouts” were not striking, but rather “were exercising constitutional rights to speech, petition, and assembly when they came to the Capitol.”

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