Teaching Profession

Kentucky Ed. Dept. Asks for Names of Protesting Teachers Who Called Out Sick

By Sarah Schwartz — March 15, 2019 3 min read
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Thousands of teachers across Kentucky have called out sick over the past two weeks, protesting new legislation that could affect the state’s teacher pension system—and now Kentucky’s education commissioner wants their names.

On Thursday, Commissioner Wayne Lewis requested a list of the teachers who had taken sick days in the 10 districts where teacher absences caused work stoppages.

He also asked these districts to turn over any doctor’s notes that could prove these teachers were actually sick, and to provide copies of any district policies around verification of sick leave.

Lewis said that he supports teachers’ constitutional rights to demonstration and protest, but that teachers can’t use their sick leave when they aren’t actually ill.

“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. There is no such right in Kentucky,” Lewis said during a press conference on Friday.

“Anyone who says to teachers that that’s a right, they’re ... being dishonest with them. They’re not their advocates. They are not their friends.”

Teachers had left their classrooms to speak out against a bill that would restructure the board that oversees the state’s teacher pension system. The proposed legislation would shift some of the nominating power away from the Kentucky Education Association to a wider group of education-related groups in the state.

The Kentucky Education Association has called the bill a “retaliatory effort” in response to last year’s teacher protests over the state’s pension system, which is one of the worst-funded in the nation.

This year’s sick-outs closed the Bath, Boyd, Bullitt, Carter, Fayette, Jefferson, Letcher, Madison, Marion, and Oldham county school systems. Jefferson County saw the longest work stoppage, with the district forced to shut down for six days.

School district closures disadvantage students, who are supposed to be the state’s first priority, Lewis said.

“When we get to the place where six days over the last two weeks, kids’ education and a community has come to a halt, something has to be done.”

Lewis said he has spoken to officials in several of the 10 districts, and has not yet heard from any that are refusing to comply with his request.

He may soon see a legal challenge, however. A Lexington county attorney has sent a letter to the state education department, informing the agency that he may file a lawsuit on behalf of teachers “affected by unprecedented interference with their first amendment rights,” the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

“Teachers should not be intimidated if they exercise their right to take sick leave,” the attorney, Mark Wohlander, told the Herald-Leader.

The Kentucky Education Association has also condemned Lewis’ request, and urged Lewis and district superintendents not to discipline teachers whose names would be released.

“Making educators—who are citizens of this Commonwealth—choose between keeping their livelihood and exercising their constitutional rights is despicable,” the organization wrote, in a statement posted to Twitter Thursday. “We hope that all superintendents recognize that such a show of political force by public school employees is a gesture of support for public school students, parents, school boards and school administrations all across the state.”

In Friday’s press conference, Lewis was adamant that his goal was not to punish teachers, or have the state press charges. But he wouldn’t guarantee that disciplinary action wouldn’t be taken against any of the teachers.

“It would be irresponsible for me to go on the record now and make a statement saying, regard of what we find, we won’t take any action,” he said.”

The best outcome, Lewis said, would be for districts in the state to develop policies to verify teacher sick leave requests.

But in a statement posted to Twitter after the conference, the Kentucky Education Association accused Lewis of using scare tactics that would create an “enemies list” of teachers for Governor Matt Bevin’s administration.

“This tactic serves only one purpose—to intimidate educators, public employees, school board members and superintendents across the Commonwealth and keep them from speaking out,” the statement read.

Photo: Several hundred teachers gather to protest perceived attacks on public education at the Capitol, in Frankfort, Ky, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. —Bryan Woolston/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.