LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The heads of four unions that represent Jefferson County Public Schools workers on Wednesday urged their members to listen to them rather than "rogue" Facebook groups that have encouraged teachers to close Kentucky's largest school district through "sick outs" this year.
The call came a day after Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler asked the advocacy group Dear JCPS to "STOP putting fear in folks who are already fearful" in a public Facebook post and a day before lawmakers return to the Capitol to wrap up this year's legislative session.
The press conference, held at Jefferson County Teachers Association headquarters, was a rare public display of unity by district unions against the continued work stoppages at JCPS. Enough teachers have requested sick leave to trigger sick outs at JCPS six times between Feb. 28 and March 14, and it's unclear whether Thursday will mark the seventh.
Some union leaders were clearly frustrated at the prospect of another sick out during Wednesday's news conference.
"We certainly support job actions and sometimes we encourage job actions, but that comes from us as leaders of the union, not from a rogue group from the outside that has their own agenda," said John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783 that represents JCPS bus drivers.
"They're pimping our people out and putting their jobs in jeopardy," he said.
JCTA President Brent McKim said teachers who requested sick leave on multiple days could be exposed to legal risk.
JCPS turned over the names of educators who asked for sick leave during the six closures to the Kentucky Department of Education on Monday as part of a broader records request from Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis. Although he declined the Jefferson County Board of Education's resolution asking him to drop his request for names, Lewis said no one would be punished if there are no further work stoppages.
"Our hope is that we will utilize the plan that the association, JCTA, agreed to with the school district that will allow three teachers per building to go to Frankfort, and we are hopeful that schools will be open on (Thursday)," McKim said.
JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio told reporters Tuesday that nearly 300 teachers had signed up to serve as Capitol delegates on Thursday, leaving him more optimistic that the district will remain open on the final day of the session.
Whether teachers will stage another sick out Thursday remains to be seen, however. Teachers still called out March 14 despite assurances from a bipartisan group of lawmakers that the remaining bills they've rallied against -- legislation on scholarship tax credits and diminishing KEA's role in the nomination of potential board members to the teachers' pension board -- will not pass this year.
Ivonne Rovira, a Spanish teacher at Wilder Elementary and administrator in the group JCPS Leads, said in a text message that the group has "always been about people consulting their own consciences and hearts."
"That hasn't changed," she said in the message.
Gay Adelmann, founder of Dear JCPS, declined to comment on the "middle school stuff" from union leaders on Wednesday. Dear JCPS has scheduled a 10 a.m. rally in the Capitol rotunda Thursday.
"They can focus on whatever they want to focus on," she said in a phone interview. "Hopefully they are going to be taking some stronger leadership positions going forward, and I welcome the opportunity to work with them."
The union leaders also highlighted the ways that the sick outs have affected their members.
Sue Foster, president of JCAESP AFSCME Local 4011 that represents JCPS support staff, said classified workers have lost "thousands of dollars" in "extra service wages" that will not be recovered. That includes people who serve as bus monitors after work and feed students for afterschool programs, events and clubs, she said.
"They've all lost that money," Foster said.
Stovall said bus drivers who miss multiple days of work could risk losing their insurance.
Union leaders also said they were combatting misinformation that has been disseminated through social media in recent weeks. In fact, Foster said she sent to Facebook group administrators cease and desist letters after they copied and pasted information she provided to her members on their pages.
"They were only cutting and pasting certain sections, and therefore it was attempting to lean in a different direction from what was actually being said to our members," Foster said, declining to identify the groups.
Asked if she had received a cease and desist letter from Foster, Adelmann declined to comment since it is "a legal matter."
"I don't think it's wise to comment on anything that's got legal ramifications," she said.
McKim said union leaders "understand and respect" that those who called out sick and forced JCPS to close did so "for the right reasons." But with absences averaging between 400 and 500 on a given day, he said it could take as few as 800 teachers to trigger a sick out.
Those teachers "are essentially making the decision for the whole group, which is inherently undemocratic."
"It’s not an elected democratic decision from the people that they elect to represent them," McKim said. "It's 800 people deciding for ultimately 6,500 teachers and then all the rest of the employees."
Foster said she believed teachers and public workers need "to pick and choose our battles wisely" and "save our strength for the big one that's coming."
"We know we're going to be there a year from now, and next year's session will be a much, much greater battle," she said.
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