LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Most school districts subpoenaed by the Kentucky Labor Cabinet have turned over responsive records after a federal judge declined last week to temporarily halt the state’s investigation into “sick outs” orchestrated by teachers this year.
Jefferson County Public Schools and six other districts told WDRB News on Monday that they had complied with the Labor Cabinet’s request for records relating to six sick outs that shuttered schools at 10 districts at least once during this year’s legislative session, including the names of teachers who requested sick leave and prompted the closures.
JCPS was the only district shut down during all six days, with most only closing for the first sick out in protest of a bill that would change the makeup and nomination process for Kentucky Teachers Retirement System trustees. JCPS teachers later added a scholarship tax credit bill and legislation that would allow the district’s superintendent to hire principals to their legislative misgivings.
Two districts – Carter County Schools and Letcher County Public Schools – told WDRB News that they complied with the cabinet’s subpoenas before U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves’s Thursday ruling, which allows the agency’s investigation into whether the sick outs between Feb. 28 and March 14 constituted illegal work stoppages to continue.
A Madison County Schools employee indicated that the district had submitted responsive documents to its legal counsel, Jerry Gilbert, for further action. Gilbert did not respond to a request for comment. Representatives of Fayette County Public Schools and Marion County Public Schools also did not return messages seeking comment.
Much of the information sought by the cabinet has been provided by the Kentucky Department of Education, which originally requested and received sick-out data from 10 school districts affected by closures, in response to a subpoena it received from the Labor Cabinet.
Attorney General Andy Beshear and the Jefferson County Teachers Association have challenged the Labor Cabinet’s authority to conduct such an inquiry in a lawsuit that was eventually placed in federal court at the cabinet’s behest. Beshear and JCTA, who are hoping to move the case back to state court, have argued that the sick outs should not be considered illegal work stoppages or strikes because their actions did not arise from labor disputes with the school districts that employ them.
In rejecting their motion for a temporary restraining order, Reeves wrote that Beshear’s and JCTA’s request for a temporary injunction failed, in part, because the cabinet already had most of the information it sought from school districts and because past cases have determined “that teachers’ constitutional rights are limited by countervailing rights of others and that the government can prohibit them from participating in work stoppages or strikes.”
“Whether the plaintiffs will ultimately prevail on one or more of their claims by asserting violations of the First Amendment or other related rights on behalf of this group of educators is yet to be decided,” Reeves wrote in the order. “It is clear, however, that at this point in the case, the plaintiffs are not entitled to injunctive relief to essentially halt the Labor Cabinet’s investigation.”
The cabinet’s next steps in its inquiry, which could yield penalties ranging from $100 to $1,000 per offense, remain unclear. An agency spokeswoman declined to discuss the ongoing investigation in response to a request for comment Monday.
But Steve Pitt, Gov. Matt Bevin’s general counsel who argued on behalf of the Labor Cabinet during a federal court hearing Tuesday, said records at the Capitol, such a visitor logs and surveillance footage, could be used to determine whether some educators may have requested sick leave under false pretenses.
“I would hope that teachers if questioned by the Labor Cabinet and asked, ‘Did you go to Frankfort on the day you called in sick?’ would tell the truth,” Pitt told reporters outside the federal courthouse in Lexington. “We’ll see. That’s what we’ve got here is an investigation. It may or may not result in any determination that any teacher anywhere violated the law here.”
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