FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said Friday that his request for names of teachers who called in absences on days when districts across the state were closed in “sick outs” was not “a scare tactic.”
Lewis said he hoped to develop a policy that would allow teachers to voice their opposition to legislation without closing schools. He’s asked JCPS and nine other school districts to produce by Monday names of every teacher who used sick leave during days in which districts were closed; local policies on sick leave use; and any documentation provided by teachers who took sick time.
Friday marked the first day Jefferson County Public Schools has been open since Monday as enough teachers took absences to trigger “sick outs” for three consecutive days this week and six in the past two weeks.
For Lewis, Thursday was a breaking point as JCPS teachers staged a sixth “sick out” in two weeks despite assurances from a bipartisan group of four local lawmakers that none of the bills that prompted them to protest would pass the General Assembly. He noted that the Jefferson County Teachers Association and Kentucky Education Association had also warned against using sick leave to trigger district closures.
“Teachers do not have the constitutional right to call in sick when you are not sick and force a work stoppage that results in Kentucky schools closing,” Lewis said during a news conference at the Kentucky Department of Education.
“Anyone who says to teachers that that’s a right, they’re first of all being dishonest with them,” he said. “They’re not their advocates. They are not their friends. They’re setting teachers up for a situation that we don’t want our teachers to be in.”
JCPS wasn’t the only district that closed as teachers protested bills moving through the General Assembly this year. About eight school districts shut down Feb. 28, the first of the session, in opposition to a bill that would change how Kentucky Teachers Retirement System board trustees are nominated.
Some JCPS teachers triggered similar “sick outs” in the days afterward, adding bills that would legalize scholarship tax credits and allow JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio and his successors the ability to hire principals instead of school-based councils to their list of grievances in this year’s session.
Nema Brewer – founder of KY 120 United, a group that formed last year and called for the Feb. 28 protest – called Lewis’s requests for teachers’ names “a witch hunt” and meant to intimidate educators who have demonstrated at the Capitol.
“It’s a shame,” Brewer told WDRB News. “The worst part of this is that our government functions while we’re at work, so until they decide to change it to where working people can actually advocate for themselves and still work, guess what? If things get heated, stuff like this is going to happen.”
The Kentucky Education Association also said Lewis’s requests were meant to keep educators “from speaking out.”
“Commissioner Lewis claims that he wants it to remain a local issue, but his heavy-handed exercise of state oversight authority speaks otherwise,” the group said in a statement.
JCTA President Brent McKim told WDRB News that he would like Lewis to resolve the issue with local superintendents and school boards and that he’s heard from “several” educators across the state who are worried about the potential ramifications of the data request.
“Teachers feel attacked, and they've lost trust in the process and have especially lost trust in Frankfort, and I think this exacerbates that loss of trust,” McKim said.
Ivonne Rovira – a Spanish teacher at Wilder Elementary and an administrator in the Facebook group JCPS Leads, which helped teachers mobilize in “sick outs” after Feb. 28 – did not return a call seeking comment.
Despite concerns otherwise, Lewis said his goal in requesting data from school districts was not to punish teachers who might have violated sick leave policy, but rather to help districts develop a method for teachers to have a presence at the Capitol without forcing schools to close.
“My goal is to end up in a place where teachers can voice their opposition and dissent when need be in Frankfort without resulting in work stoppages where kids are deprived of instructional days,” he said.
When asked why he needed teachers’ names, Lewis said he was simply begging the process of collecting records. He said he had not request Capitol visitor logs.
“We’re asking for the records, we’re asking for the policies, everything that we need to determine whether or not Kentucky law has been upheld,” Lewis said.
No districts have indicated to KDE that they did not plan to comply with his requests and none have submitted responsive records, he said.
Still, some area districts are considering their next course of action.
JCPS Communications Director Renee Murphy said the district is “still reviewing the request.”
Oldham County Schools Communications Director Lori McDowell said Superintendent Greg Schultz “is reviewing and working through every angle of the request with our general counsel to determine what the district legally has to do versus what we think is the right thing to do.”
“Until we are able to gain complete clarity on what is required by law, we will not submit information to KDE,” she said in a statement.
Bullitt County Superintendent Jesse Bacon said his district plans to comply, but officials are “still evaluating the absences attributable to sick leave, the statutory and policy requirements, along with the reality of the underlying reasons teachers were absent to advocate for our profession.”
Rich Gimmel, a Kentucky Board of Education member, called Lewis’s goal to help draft policies to give teachers a voice in legislative matters while keeping schools open “admirable.”
When asked whether he would push to pursue any legal concerns brought to the board’s attention, Gimmel said the issue at hand “shouldn’t be that complicated.” In announcing his requests Thursday, KDE said the commissioner could report any wrongdoing to the board, with the board able to forward that information to local prosecutors.
“The behavior was either legal, or it was illegal,” Gimmel said. “My experience is that illegal behavior typically carries consequences, but I don’t know that we’re in a position to enforce that. I think that would be something for the local districts to decide on their own.”
Lewis said the JCPS work stoppage had not affected his opinion of Pollio's leadership of Kentucky's largest school district. He noted that Pollio and JCTA had presented a proposal to teachers that would have allowed schools to send delegates to the Capitol without closing schools and that other districts had similar plans in place this session.
"I can't imagine how he must feel," Lewis said. "When you spend the time to negotiate a deal like that in good faith and it falls apart, I think he's probably at his wits' end trying to figure out where we go next."
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