Lewis: Suspended students in basement at JCPS school 'sickening'

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis is asking school districts to take a more punitive stance toward “sick outs,” suggesting that districts explore disciplining teachers who use sick leave requests to force schools to close in the future.

Lewis sent a memorandum Wednesday to superintendents in 10 districts that closed due to sick outs during this year’s legislative session. The memo comes after the education commissioner’s review of data he requested from affected districts, including the names of teachers who requested sick leave.

In his memo, Lewis recommended that districts enact policies that describe a sick out as "an illegal work stoppage" and send lists of teachers who requested sick leave under such circumstances if requested by the Kentucky Labor Cabinet for an investigation and potential civil penalties. The policies should note that educators can use personal leave rather than sick leave for political advocacy, he said.

Lewis also recommended districts pass policies for potential disciplinary action for teachers who falsify sick leave requests, including termination and referral to the Education Professional Standards Board, potentially endangering their teaching licenses.

“These school closures come at a tremendous cost to families, classified district employees, tax payers, and – most importantly – our children,” Lewis said in the memo.

“If district closures because of work stoppages continue and districts are unwilling or unable to address this problem, I will explore further action to do so, including recommending that the Labor Cabinet issue citations for teachers engaged in illegal work stoppages. At this time, however, I will allow local districts an opportunity to address this issue first.”

Lewis said he would not recommend a regulatory change at the Kentucky Board of Education since "the vast majority" of school districts have found ways to allow some teachers to advocate in Frankfort during this year's session without closing and because most teachers "have not been dishonest in requesting sick leave."

Nema Brewer, head of the group KY 120 United that organized the Feb. 28 demonstration in the 10 districts throughout the state, said districts should not be forced to change sick leave policies that have worked "for years."

The problem, she said, is how educators have been treated by leaders in Frankfort.

"I think it would help them tremendously to kind of take a look in the mirror and maybe ask themselves why this is going on because nothing's changed except them," Brewer told WDRB News. "To me, he can look at whatever he wants to. He's the commissioner, but I also think if he's looking at stuff, maybe he needs to look at himself and his boss."

In a statement, the Kentucky Education Association said Lewis should push for districts to provide teachers with as many personal days as allowed under state law and to permanently enact delegate plans in which educators can have a presence in Frankfort during legislative sessions.

"Any Kentucky educator knows that positive supports get better results than fear every day of the week," KEA said in the statement. "Let's see if the Commissioner believes that, too."

Lewis put no timetable on when he'd like to see districts enact policy changes. 

He told WDRB News that he wants "districts to work this out at the local level and for there to be no more work stoppages."

"If there are no more illegal work stoppages, I'm happy," Lewis said. "That's what we want. We want this to hopefully be the last time that we're having this conversation at the state level in Kentucky."

Brewer said losing sick outs as a demonstration tool is "obviously always a concern," although KY 120 United has made inroads with district leadership throughout the state.

Still, Brewer said the matter might ultimately be out of local leaders' hands if districts ignore Lewis's request for policy changes.

"I think what'll happen is exactly what Wayne Lewis wants to happen," she said. "Unfortunately, the voices of the rank-and-file and the voices of regular workers have been ignored and put to the side for the last several years in Frankfort.

Jefferson County Public Schools was among the 10 districts that received Lewis’s memo. Kentucky’s largest school district closed six times in a two-week period between Feb. 28 and March 14 as teachers protested legislation they believe would harm public education, including bills on scholarship tax credits and reducing the Kentucky Education Association’s influence in the nomination process for prospective trustees on the teachers’ pension board.

In his memo, Lewis said more than 2,000 JCPS teachers called out to trigger the Feb. 28 closure. However, he declined to say how many local teachers had requested sick leave on the five other sick outs.

JCPS officials are currently reviewing Lewis's recommendations, said district Communications Director Renee Murphy.

Jefferson County Board of Education member Chris Brady, who represents District 7, told WDRB News that he is "not going to do (Lewis's) dirty work for him."

Board member Linda Duncan, who represents District 5, said the district's sick leave police "is not the problem."

"We can enforce what we have," she said. "Social media is the problem. Those messages going out are difficult."

Lawmakers return to Frankfort Thursday, and Lewis has said he would not pursue disciplinary action against teachers if there are no further work stoppages.

It’s unclear whether some JCPS teachers will stage a seventh sick out on Thursday. Union leaders warned their members Wednesday against listening to Facebook groups that have largely coordinated this year’s sick outs.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said Tuesday that he believes teachers will follow the delegate plan between the district and the Jefferson County Teachers Association in which schools would be allowed to send three delegates to Frankfort on Thursday. 

Lewis also expressed his optimism that JCPS will remain open Thursday.

"I'm hopeful and I'm optimistic that that will work out," he said.

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