Kentucky’s Education Commissioner on Wednesday told superintendents who experienced recent work stoppages because of high teacher absences that they should close loopholes in their district sick leave policies.
“If district closures because of work stoppages continue and districts and local boards are unwilling or unable to address this problem, I will explore further action to do so, including recommending that the labor cabinet issue citations to teachers engaged in illegal work stoppages,” Wayne Lewis said in a memo to 10 school districts. “At this time, however, I will allow local districts an opportunity to address this issue first.”
The memo followed Lewis’ controversial request earlier in the month for information, including names of teachers who were absent when districts closed and educators protested during the 2019 General Assembly. He said Wednesday that all 10 districts—Fayette, Jefferson, Bath, Boyd, Bullitt, Carter, Letcher, Madison, Marion and Oldham—had complied with his request.
In response, the Kentucky Education Association issued a statement that said KEA reviewed the Commissioner’s memo and that the conclusions he had drawn were legal ones.
“The analysis he offers could easily have been completed at any time without making dramatic, cumbersome requests for information from the districts involved and without knowing the name of a single teacher who requested leave on any of the days in question,“ KEA officials said. “His continued threat to use those names to trigger individual consequences if teachers and school administrators don’t comply with his demands just proves to us what we’ve known all along: Getting those names was always intended to intimidate.”
Fayette County Public Schools district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said Wednesday that “we are in receipt of the commissioner’s communication and in the process of reviewing it.”
Jefferson County Public School officials told the Courier-Journal that they were reviewing the memo.
After receiving the districts’ responses to his initial information requests, Lewis concluded that more than 2,000 teachers took advantage of a loophole in state law leading to a work stoppage. He said that eight districts—Bath, Boyd, Carter, Fayette, Letcher, Madison, Marion and Oldham—closed for one day. Bullitt County closed for three days, and Jefferson County closed for six days.
Lewis said the problem is that when enough teachers call in sick the districts ultimately do not require proof of illness or the use of a sick leave day. Rather, he said they declare a local emergency under state law and report the day as a non-contract day. Consequently, teachers can organize en mass to dishonestly call in sick and force an “emergency” without providing verification of illness, his memo said.
Lewis suggested that districts take the following actions:
▪ Teachers who want to miss work to engage in political advocacy would have to request and receive approval to use personal leave not sick leave.
▪ He said teachers requesting sick leave for the purpose of closing the district amounts to an illegal work stoppage. If a district suspects that sick leave has been requested to create a work stoppage, he said the district should preserve the list of teacher sick leave requests and submit the list to the Kentucky Secretary of Labor for investigation and possible civil penalties under state law.
▪ Lewis said teachers found to have falsified sick leave requests should be disciplined by the district up to and including possible termination under state law. They could also be reported by the superintendent to the state education professional standards board, which oversees state educator licenses.
The number of sick leave requests for many of the districts was abnormally high and–“coupled with the widespread and public rallying cries of teacher advocacy groups for teachers to organize in Frankfort on the days in question–suggests a possible illegal work stoppage under state law,” Lewis said.
He said in Jefferson County Public Schools sick leave requests numbered in the thousands.
“Similarly, Fayette County’s hundreds of sick leave calls for February 28 resulted in the district not having enough substitute teachers to safely continue with the instructional day and forced the district to close,” Lewis said in the memo.
Thursday is the final day of the regular session of the 2019 General Assembly.
Lewis said that teachers have a First Amendment right to engage in political advocacy, but they do not have a right to organize a work stoppage by lying about being sick.
“Teachers can and should use a personal day granted to them by (state law) or engage in political advocacy outside of work hours,” said Lewis.
“These ‘sick outs’ have impeded students’ academic learning, created tremendous inconveniences for thousands of families, and caused classified staff to lose pay on days their districts closed,” Lewis said. He added in a news release Wednesday that “it’s imperative that students receive classroom instruction without interruption throughout the school year, barring major weather events or illness.”
The KEA statement additionally said that “it’s possible that the Commissioner doesn’t understand that many teachers don’t get personal days (under state law) because the language of that statute is permissive, not mandatory.”
“He claims to support teachers’ right to advocate and engage in the political process; if that’s true, he should use his bully pulpit to encourage all districts to grant the maximum number of personal days under (state law) and to permanently establish plans to allow employee delegations to travel to Frankfort during the legislative sessions,” the KEA statement said. “Any Kentucky educator knows that positive supports get better results than fear every day of the week. Let’s see if the Commissioner believes that, too.“
Copyright (c) 2019, The Lexington Herald Leader. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.