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Kentucky districts get subpoenas related to teacher absences

April 10, 2019
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FILE - In this March 12, 2019 file photo Karen Schwartz, a teacher at Phoenix School of Discovery in Louisville, stands with other teaches and their supporters to protest perceived attacks on public education, in Frankfort, Ky. Kentucky’s largest school district received a subpoena from Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration on Wednesday, April 10, 2019 that seeks the names of teachers who might have used sick days to attend statehouse rallies while the legislature met. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston, file)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s largest school district received a subpoena from Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration on Wednesday that seeks the names of teachers who might have used sick days to attend statehouse rallies while the legislature met.

Widespread absences in some districts forced classes to be canceled for as long as a few days while teachers clad in red-shirts converged on Kentucky’s Capitol earlier this year, drawing Bevin’s criticism. Kentucky’s school closures continued a wave of teacher activism that began last year with a statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia that quickly spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona.

In Kentucky, the teachers’ many concerns this year included an unsuccessful measure before the GOP-dominated legislature that would have granted tax credits to people who donate to scholarship funds for special needs children and those in foster care or low- to middle-income homes to attend private schools. The bill died.

The Kentucky Labor Cabinet sent a subpoena Wednesday to Jefferson County Public Schools, which includes Louisville. It’s the state’s largest district and one of the biggest in the country with nearly 100,000 students. A school district spokesman confirmed its receipt. Officials in two other Kentucky districts — Oldham and Bullitt counties — said school officials also received subpoenas involving teacher absences.

House Democratic leaders in Kentucky condemned the use of subpoenas, calling it a “new low” for Bevin’s administration meant to “strong-arm any opposition.”

“Our teachers were exercising their First Amendment right to be heard on legislative matters directly affecting them,” the top House Democrats said in a statement.

Kentucky Labor Cabinet spokeswoman Haley Bradburn said Wednesday the matter had been referred to the Office of Inspector General, adding the cabinet doesn’t comment on OIG inquiries.

Earlier this year, when Jefferson County schools were again forced to cancel classes, Bevin responded by posting a video on his Twitter page with the caption “SICK OF ‘SICKOUTS,’” where he accused teachers of “walking out on students.” It amplified Bevin’s clash with teachers and education advocates this year as he is seeking a second term.

One of the Democrats running for governor, state Attorney General Andy Beshear, said the subpoenas appeared to be “another example of our bully governor going after anybody who disagrees with him.”

Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis told the Courier Journal on Wednesday that he learned of the subpoenas only after they were issued.

“I played no role in their decision making,” he told the Louisville newspaper while in Ashland, Kentucky, for a state education board meeting.

Lewis said recently that the superintendents who had to cancel classes while teachers protested at the Capitol should close loopholes in sick leave policies. Lewis recommended they have teachers use personal leave instead of sick leave to engage in political advocacy.

In late March, he said he had “no intention” of punishing teachers, but that districts should investigate to determine if discipline was warranted.

In its subpoena, the Labor Cabinet asked Jefferson County Public School officials for records identifying the names of any school district employees who called in sick on dates when “sickouts” occurred in late February and March, according to a copy of the document.

It also seeks any documentation that teachers provided to prove they were sick, including doctors’ notes. The cabinet also wants copies of the district’s sick leave policies and copies of records in which district officials discussed the decision to close schools due to sickouts.

It instructed the district not to disclose information about the subpoena’s contents to anyone affected by the requests, saying such disclosures could hinder an ongoing investigation.

Teachers in Kentucky don’t strike but have coordinated among themselves to use all their sick days on the same day, forcing districts to close because they don’t have enough substitutes to cover classes.

Last year, Republican lawmakers in Kentucky forced through a bill making changes to the public pension system. It prompted protests from thousands of teachers who closed schools in more than 30 districts across the state. The state Supreme Court struck that law down on procedural grounds. Late in 2018 Bevin called the legislature back in session to pass a version of the bill again, but lawmakers could not reach an agreement and adjourned.