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Lawsuit Threatened As Kentucky Looks Into Teacher 'Sickouts'

Josh James

Kentucky's education commissioner on Friday would not rule out disciplining teachers who used their sick days to close multiple school districts so they could protest at the state Capitol.

The Republican-dominated state legislature has been meeting since February, with lawmakers considering proposals that would change who manages the teachers' pension fund and indirectly support private schools with tax credits.

Teachers responded by using their sick days to force school districts to close. Since Feb. 28, at least 10 school districts have had to close because of too many teacher absences. Jefferson County Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the country with more than 98,000 students, shut down six times in two weeks.

So far, lawmakers have not passed those bills. The legislature has only one day left to pass bills, which will be March 28 when they return from a recess to consider any potential vetoes from the governor.

On Thursday, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis sent a letter to those 10 districts, asking for the names of all teachers who requested a sick day on the days the districts were forced to close.

Attorney Mark Wohlander sent the department a letter Friday asking them to preserve documents as he prepares a possible federal civil rights lawsuit for the department's "unprecedented interference with (teachers') first amendment rights."

Lewis acknowledged receiving Wohlander's letter, but he called it "frivolous." He said teachers have the right to protest at the state Capitol. But they don't have the right, he said, to close schools by using sick days when they aren't sick.

In a news conference at the Department of Education, Lewis told reporters it was not his goal to use the information to discipline teachers. But he would not rule it out.

"I could never definitively say that," Lewis said. "When you start to collect information, you don't know what you're going to find."

This is the second year teachers have used "sick outs" to protest Republican-backed legislation, after a wave of teacher activism that began with a strike in West Virginia before spreading to other states.

Last year, teachers opposed Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's proposal to overhaul their pension system, which is at least $14 billion short of the money it needs to pay benefits over the next few decades.

When teachers closed schools in several districts last spring, Bevin told reporters he "guaranteed" a child had been sexually assaulted somewhere in Kentucky that day because the child was left home alone while the schools were closed. Bevin later apologized, but his relationship with some in the education community has never recovered.

The Kentucky Education Association, which represents more than 43,000 teachers, said superintendents could discipline teachers for using sick days when they were not sick. But the association said Lewis' request for teachers' names is meant to intimidate them, "using the power of his office to compile an 'enemies list' of educators for the Bevin Administration."

Lewis reports to the state Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor. But Lewis said Friday that he did not speak with the governor or anyone in his administration about asking for the names of teachers who called in sick.

"That's probably the cry for anything that I do. If I sharpen a pencil, people say Gov. Bevin told me to do it," Lewis said. "I have not talked to the governor in probably about two months."

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