Interim Kentucky education commissioner starts JCPS visit with audit recommendation coming soon

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Kentucky Labor Cabinet now has the names of teachers whose sick leave requests closed 10 school districts during this year’s legislative session after subpoenaing the Kentucky Department of Education on Thursday.

Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis notified superintendents in a letter Thursday that KDE provided the Labor Cabinet information given to the agency by their districts in response to a subpoena from the cabinet, which is investigating the closures as potentially illegal work stoppages.

Lewis said he preferred that the cabinet get the requested records through the school districts, but KDE legal counsel "advised me that the subpoena was lawful, and as such, we have complied."

"I do not anticipate KDE having further involvement in the Labor Cabinet's investigation," he said in a statement late Thursday.

School districts were shut down for six sick outs between Feb. 28 and March 14 as teachers protested bills that would legalize scholarship tax credits, change how nominees are chosen for trustee elections to the teachers’ pension board and allow superintendents in Jefferson County Public Schools to hire principals instead of school-based councils. Only the latter bill passed the General Assembly.

KDE’s compliance essentially allows the cabinet to sidestep Attorney General Andy Beshear and the Jefferson County Teachers Association, who are suing the agency to block its subpoenas to the affected school districts. An initial hearing in the case is scheduled at 9 a.m. Monday in Franklin Circuit Court.

Beshear, a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, said Lewis was aiding in the Labor Cabinet’s “attempts to fine teachers $1,000 or more.” The cabinet can issue civil penalties up to $1,000 per offense.

“Matt Bevin and his allies will stop at nothing in their attempts to intimidate and attack teachers,” Beshear said in a statement. “…I will stop these actions to ensure this petty governor does not fine a single one of our underpaid public servants.”

JCPS had the most closures at six in the session’s waning days despite assurances from lawmakers that the bills that prompted the sick outs would not be passed.

On the sixth sick out, Lewis requested information from school districts, including the names of teachers who requested sick leave on days when districts closed, leave policies and any documentation provided by teachers who requested sick time. He said his goal was to enact changes at the local level that would prevent closures while also allowing teachers to express their opinions on legislation.

Lewis said he would not pursue disciplinary action if the sick outs ended, and no school districts closed due to teacher shortages on the session’s final day. Less than two weeks later, the Labor Cabinet subpoenaed JCPS and eventually nine other districts affected by sick outs.

The grassroots group KY 120 United, which emerged during last year's legislative session as teachers protested an unexpected pension reform bill that was ultimately ruled unconstitutional on procedural grounds, called for the initial sick out Feb. 28 as lawmakers considered a bill in committee that would alter the makeup and nomination process for Kentucky Teachers Retirement System trustees.

A group made up of mostly JCPS teachers called JCPS Leads broke from KY 120 United and acted as a sounding board for local teachers who wanted to continue their demonstrations at the Capitol.

KY 120 United said Thursday's action shows Gov. Matt Bevin "will stop at nothing to terrorize and intimidate the very people who shape the future of our Commonwealth daily."

"As real Kentuckians would put it, 'bless his heart,'" the group said in a statement.

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