Teacher protest at Capitol

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – More than 1,000 teachers broke state law barring work stoppages by public employees in six “sick outs” during this year’s legislative session, but they will not face penalties, the Kentucky Labor Cabinet announced Friday.

But Labor Cabinet Secretary David Dickerson said that won’t be the case if teachers stage future sick outs. The agency can issue civil penalties of up to $1,000 per violation.

“Let it be clearly understood that the grace extended in this instance will not be extended for future such proven violations,” he said in a statement.

“The public cannot tolerate another illegal work stoppage in our schools. It is important for public school teachers to understand the level of seriousness that, by law, the Labor Cabinet must and will give to any future work stoppages.”

The cabinet, which launched its investigation into the teacher sick outs in April, found that 1,074 teachers broke the law by participating in a “concerted effort” to close school districts during this year’s legislative session as teachers protested bills that would legalize scholarship tax credits, alter the selection process for members of the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System board and grant Jefferson County Public Schools superintendents the authority to select principals rather than school-based councils.

JCPS closed six times in the waning days of this year’s legislative session, the most in the state. 

The cabinet did not immediately respond to requests for a breakdown of teachers found in violation of state law by district and a copy of its investigation.

The investigation’s end comes days before a scheduled pretrial conference in Franklin Circuit Court after Attorney General Andy Beshear, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, sued the Labor Cabinet in an attempt to block the inquiry and challenge the agency's authority to investigate teacher sick outs. That hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Monday.

Beshear’s lawsuit was originally filed in that court, but the cabinet sought to have it heard in federal court.

U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves ultimately sent the case back to Franklin Circuit Court, though the cabinet quoted from a previous order from Reeves denying Beshear’s request for an injunction to halt the investigation in a news release announcing the investigation's completion Friday.

"Kentucky statutes explicitly grant the Labor Cabinet the authority to prosecute and assess civil penalties against public employees, which includes public-school teachers who may have violated" state law, Reeves wrote in that order.

Beshear called the investigation's closure "a clear win for the thousands of teachers that this governor tried to bully."

"Today, Matt Bevin and the Labor Cabinet backed down and stated that they would not attempt to fine brave Kentucky teachers who protested his anti-education policies at the Capitol," Beshear, who will face Bevin in the Nov. 5 election, said in a statement.

"While the governor’s press release attempts to threaten future punishment of teachers, we’ve stopped him before, we stopped him here and we will stop him in the future," he said.

Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim, whose union joined Beshear's lawsuit against the cabinet, said the agency's decision not to pursue civil penalties against teachers should be seen as a "victory" for educators.

However, he noted that the lawsuit is still moving through court. JCTA did not endorse teachers' sick outs this year.

"We simply disagree with the Bevin administration's position that this was a violation of the law, and it's certainly premature to be saying that when there's no court decision affirming that that's true," McKim said in a phone interview.

Nema Brewer, co-founder of the grassroots activist group KY 120 United and a Fayette County Public Schools employee, offered a more blunt assessment of the cabinet's findings and said they would impact the relationships her group has built with Republican lawmakers in Frankfort.

KY 120 United called for the first sick out of this year's legislative session over the KTRS bill, but not subsequent actions. The other closures were coordinated through JCPS Leads, a private Facebook group made up mostly of Jefferson County teachers.

"What this move today has done from the Labor Cabinet has blown all that up," she said in a phone interview. "Every bit of it. Trust is again violated. It was not because of us. It's directly because of (Bevin) and his labor department.

"Because of that, there is no olive branch as of now. Forget it."

Every elected official who "does not stand up to Matt Bevin and his tyranny ... will be judged on his actions," she said.

Asked if the cabinet's findings and threats of future penalties would impact future demonstrations at the Capitol by teachers, Brewer said they would not be "silenced."

"We're not going to back down," she said. "We won't be intimidated. Game on."

For its part, the Dickerson said the cabinet would "continue to monitor any future 'sick outs' closely for further violations of Kentucky labor law."

"The purpose of the Cabinet’s investigation was to undertake a thorough investigation into conduct by some public school teachers and ensure that work stoppages do not happen again so that public schools will be able to fulfill their mission to educate the children of Kentucky," Dickerson said in his statement.

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